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Umbanhowar to deliver spring Mellby lecture on the ecology of fire

Portrait of Charles Umbanhowar Jr. with a snowy prairie in the background.
Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr. will deliver the 2021 spring Mellby Lecture on March 16.

St. Olaf College Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr. will deliver this year’s spring Mellby Lecture, titled “Future, Present, Past? Reconstructing the Ecological History of Fire Using Charcoal.” 

The virtual talk will take place on Tuesday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The lecture will be streamed and archived online.  

In his lecture, Umbanhowar will explore how human actions and the natural world impact instances of fire, and vice versa. “One of the questions I will be addressing is how climate impacts fire and more specifically what combination of wet or dry years results in more burning,” Umbanhowar says. “I am especially interested in thinking about how fires have impacted the distribution of forests and grasslands.”

Umbanhowar was born in Chicago, but most of his youth was first spent in Idaho and later in rural Dennison, Minnesota. A love for plants and ecology grew out of family camping trips in Idaho and gardening in Minnesota, the state he also associates with home remodeling, detasseling corn, and Dr. Who. Umbanhowar went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in biology from Carleton College in 1985. During his undergraduate years at Carleton, he worked summers in the arboretum and served as one of Carleton’s first student naturalists. 

After earning his Ph.D. in botany and entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1989, he spent a year in Bismarck, doing rare plant survey work for the North Dakota Natural Heritage Inventory. Umbanhowar joined the St. Olaf biology and environmental studies faculty in 1991. He has served as chair of the Departments of Biology and Environmental Studies, and he was the Paul and Mildred Hardy Distinguished Professor of Science from 2015 to 2018. This summer he will assume the position of Curator of the St. Olaf Natural Lands, following in the able footsteps of Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen Shea and Professor Emeritus of Biology Eugene Bakko.

Umbanhowar has been assisted in his research by more than 40 students over the summer months or during the academic year, and values “working with students on a shared problem and sharing the excitement of discovering new things about the world.” He sees doing research with students as teaching, and he frequently brings his research into the classroom or laboratory in order to teach students about fire and ecology. His teaching has included Introductory Biology and Remote Sensing and GIS courses, and he has taught in programs that include Summer Bridge and Science Conversations. He also had the great pleasure of co-teaching The Biology of Politics with his father, the late political science professor Charles Umbanhowar Sr.

Umbanhowar’s research interests have continued to evolve over the years. His dissertation research focused on the impact of animal disturbances on plant diversity at the Ordway Prairie in South Dakota, and he continues to monitor plots that he established at Ordway Prairie in 1987. His frustration with the lack of quantitative historical data on disturbances in prairies led him to the field of paleoecology, specifically the analysis of charcoal, preserved in lake sediments, as a proxy for fire. Charcoal research sites have included the Dakotas, the Big Woods region of Minnesota, tundra-forest border of Manitoba, Isle Royale, Eastern Labrador, and western Mongolia. His research has currently expanded to include using satellite and drone-based remote sensing of peatlands to understand responses of Arctic ecosystems to climate change.

About the Mellby Lecture
The annual Mellby Lectures remember St. Olaf faculty member Carl A. Mellby. Established in 1983, they allow professors to share their research with the public. Mellby, the “the father of social sciences” at St. Olaf, started the college’s first courses in economics, sociology, political science, and art history. He was professor and administrator from 1901 to 1949, taught Greek, German, French, religion, and philosophy, and developed the college’s honor system.