Projects for Summer 2023

High-elevation spruce-fir bird communities and the effects of climate change

Mentor: Dr. Andrew Laughlin, Environmental Studies, UNC Asheville
Project Base: UNC Asheville
Academic Area: Ecological Effects of Climate Change

One pervasive effect of climate change is that species are shifting their distributions: some species are moving up in latitude towards the poles to track their preferred climate, while some montane species are shifting upward in elevation to do so. How are these shifts influencing the species already at the top of the mountain? Are these species riding the ‘elevator to extinction’ as they attempt track their preferred climate to altitudes that don’t exist? This project will take place in the southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests, which are the highest forests east of the Mississippi River. Many northern bird species reach their southern distributional limit here because of these so-called sky-islands, relic forests that moved up in elevation after the last ice-age. These forests are among the most endangered forests in North America due to their small size, the effects of introduced pests, and climate change. The student in this project will 1) help gather information from prior research on birds of these spruce-fir forests as historical baseline data; 2) help set up and retrieve automated recording devices in select sites; 3) analyze the recordings to determine species composition and diversity metrics; and 4) help perform morning field surveys of birds to systematically gather a new set of baseline data for future studies.


Changing interactions of soil organisms

Mentor: Dr. Camila Cramer Filgueiras, Biology, UNC Asheville
Project Base: UNC Asheville
Academic Area: Biology

Rising atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations alter soil chemistry through effects on plant root exudates, changing carbon fluxes, and soil acidity. Soil organisms depend on each of these factors to navigate their world and interact with their environment. We are looking for students interested in working with below ground insect and nematode interactions in the context of a changing climate. Student researchers will conduct laboratory bioassays examining how changing environmental factors affect the ability of organisms critical to soil nutrient cycling to adapt to these changing conditions. A focus of this work will be understanding second and third order effects on below ground multi-trophic interactions in a changing climate.


The steps to resilience | Training for adaptation planning

Mentor: Karin Rogers, National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), UNC Asheville
Project Base: UNC Asheville or NEMAC offices in downtown Asheville
Academic Area: Climate Resilience and Adaptation

This project will support the US Climate Resilience Toolkit (CRT) (, a federal website that brings climate information and tools together for decision makers so they can make informed decisions about infrastructure, natural resources, and protecting people in the face of climate-related hazards. The CRT team is actively researching the most appropriate way to develop and deliver training materials related to the Steps to Resilience —a framework that describes a methodical approach communities can use to identify their valuable assets, determine which climate-related hazards could harm them, and then identify and take effective actions to reduce their risk. The student will focus on the development of a training manual for the Steps to Resilience based on a Practitioner Guide and existing training courses currently in development. The project will involve applied research related to pedagogical design and the evaluation and improvement of existing training methodologies. Additionally, the REU student will get the opportunity to learn about adaptation planning and equity-centered climate resilience plans, plus learn skills related science writing, graphic design and editing during their time at UNC Asheville.

Historical summer rainfall and lightning events in the southern Appalachian Mountains

Mentor: Dr. Douglas Miller, Atmospheric Sciences, UNC Asheville
Project Base: UNC Asheville
Academic Area: Atmospheric Science

Past research shows promise in anticipating severe weather 15-20 minutes after recognized patterns of total lightning (intra- and inter-cloud) and cloud-to-ground observations have been detected by lightning networks. It is unknown how well lighting observations can be utilized as a nowcasting tool to anticipate flash flooding events in the mountains. A historical summer rainfall and lightning events catalog for the period July – August 2018-2022 will be assembled to collect observed rainfall from two research networks located in the southern Appalachian Mountains; the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab sub-basin network and the Duke Great Smoky Mountains Rain Gauge Network. Rainfall observations collected from these networks, combined with WSR-88D rainfall estimates, streamflow observations, storm reports, NWS flash flood warning polygons, and space-based flooding observations, will be included in the catalog as a starting point for investigating their link to lightning observations from various operational detection networks.

Native plant diversity in the Asheville Botanical Gardens

Mentor: Dr. David Clark, Biology, UNC Asheville
Project Base: UNC Asheville
Academic Area: Biology

The Asheville Botanical Gardens is a ten-acre preserve on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville (UNCA) dedicated to conservation of native plants of the Southern Appalachians. While it has been actively maintained for over sixty years, no comprehensive inventory has been undertaken in over forty years. Research interns will help identify and catalog the plants in the garden. They will gain valuable skills in plant identification using respected botanical references, databases, and the resources of the herbarium at UNCA . These baseline data will be valuable in planning conservation efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change going forward.