Melissa Lynn Chipman looks into the past to better understand the future. As an Arctic paleoecologist, Chipman uses scientific techniques to reconstruct the ancient landscape of Earth’s northern regions. By studying climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic over time, she traces how climate and fires have altered the landscape. Chipman brings many different skills to her work—she holds degrees in environmental geosciences; geography; geology; and ecology, evolution, and conservation biology.
The Arctic environment is undergoing pronounced changes due to human-caused climate change. For instance, glaciers are melting, and soil frozen year-round, known as permafrost, is thawing. Chipman and her lab group at New York's Syracuse University want to better understand how Arctic ecosystems are responding to rising temperatures and, in particular, how wildfire is involved. Wildfires, which are largely triggered by lightning in the Arctic, can have a substantial effect on landscapes. In addition to burning trees and underbrush, wildfires release the carbon that is stored in the ground into the atmosphere. That carbon, in turn, can contribute to global warming and climate change.
Chipman uses techniques, such as mud-core sampling, to better understand past environments in places like Alaska and Greenland. By analyzing the chemistry of the mud, and of the fragments of charcoal sometimes found within it, Chipman reconstructs environmental conditions that persisted long ago and estimates how frequently wildfires occurred in Earth’s northern regions. Using these measurements of an environment’s fire history and its climate, Chipman seeks to better understand how wildfires are linked to climate change.
In addition to being a scientist, Chipman is also passionate about sharing her love of science with other people; she has helped to organize workshops for school teachers about ecology and climate change. In these workshops, Chipman shares scientific facts and provides curriculum materials and tips for engaging students. The overall goal of these workshops is to build bridges between educators, scientists, and students.