Early Career Spotlight

Brook Hunter

Tell us about yourself:

My name is Brooke Hunter (she/her) and I am a PhD candidate in Earth Sciences at the University of Oregon working with Josh Roering. I grew up in Minnesota and received my B.A. in Geology at Macalester College. There I studied how environmental stressors (increased water velocity and suspended sediment loads) affect freshwater river mussel populations and behavior in four watersheds throughout the state and in the Outdoor Stream Lab at St. Anthony Falls Lab (University of Minnesota). At the University of Oregon, I am part of the UO Geomorphology lab advised by Josh Roering, and collaborate with the Soil, Plant, Atmosphere (SPA) lab run by Lucas Silva. In addition to conducting research, I also helped kickstart and participated in our department’s IgDEAS (inclusivity and gender diversity in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences) initiative for the past two years. This initiative is aimed at breaking down barriers in Earth Science to create a fairer and more equitable community for all.

What is your research about?

I am interested in the connections between geomorphology, landscape evolution, hazards, and soil science. I am using a four-year LiDAR data set from the Douglas Fire area (southern Oregon) to quantify the timing, magnitude, style, and location of post-wildfire erosion in a landscape where land management practices vary in a checkerboard pattern. Additionally, I research how topography, geomorphic processes, and erosion rate affect soil geochemistry and soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks. To do this I am collecting soil samples from hilltop to colluvial hollow along an erosional gradient. I want to quantify and characterize the effects topography and wildfire on SOC stocks and how post-fire erosion moves SOC around the landscape.

What excites you about your research?

I greatly enjoy the interdisciplinary nature, connection to climate science, and societal relevance of my research. I love that I use a variety of tools that span field work, lab work, and computational analysis. I get to zoom around in LIDAR world to investigate my field site before I go. Then I can get my hands dirty while digging pits to collect soils samples that I will analyze for SOC, geochemistry and other soil properties back in the lab! The opportunity to connect these various methods of research allows me to be constantly learning and developing new skills, which I think is one of the most exciting parts of my research!

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. Oregon (along with much of the western United States) saw record breaking fire seasons this summer. I want to understand how land management, topography, burn severity, and ecosystem type influences post-fire erosion to better predict hazard potential and wildfire effects on SOC. How long after a fire do post-fire debris flows and landslides occur? How does the post-fire response in Oregon compare to southern California in terms of style and timing? How do these post-fire erosion rates compare to long-term averages? Additionally, Oregon’s landscape has seen a great amount of timber management and large-scale clear cutting – how do varying management types impact post-fire response? These are all questions that are deeply important for the safety of people living in these communities impacted by these events. Furthermore, the pedosphere stores more carbon than the atmosphere and biosphere combined! Research investigating hillslope SOC stocks is increasing and the role of erosion in the carbon cycle is becoming more appreciated. Part of my research includes using geomorphic principles and soil analysis to improve upon existing models to better predict SOC stocks in steep landscapes on hillslope, catchment, and landscape scales.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth Science?

I was originally drawn to Earth Science because it encompasses many intriguing disciplines (math, physics, chemistry, etc) and connects them to ask questions about the environment around us. Earth Science research can have real tangible impacts on society and policy. This is an appealing aspect of being in this field. There are also so many wormholes to go down in Earth Science. So, I know I will never be bored– which is a great thing! The people I met when first starting off in Earth Science also had a significant influence on my initial entry into geology and my decision to pursue an Earth Science graduate program at the University of Oregon. The Macalester college geology community consists of a strong, welcoming, and supportive group of people who foster a love for Earth science by stimulating curiosity and creating hand-on learning experiences. Specifically, Professor Kelly MacGregor’s continual support and encouragement played a significant role in me deciding to apply for graduate school.

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD?

I would like to continue research that connects climate change, land use, geomorphology, and soil science with a collaborative team of faculty, researchers, students, and community members. Initially, I hope for this to be through a postdoc after completing my PhD. After that I would like to find a faculty position at an institution that not only values research, but teaching, outreach, and community betterment as well.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

I would love to collect high temporal and spatial resolution LiDAR datasets in varying ecosystems that have experienced wildfires. These types of data sets, in contrasting ecosystems, are vital to quantifying how varying vegetation, precipitation, lithology, and topography affect the timing and style of post-fire erosion. The ability to know when a large wildfire is about to occur to get the perfect pre-fire collection would be great as well, but that is something that money cannot buy. A great amount of post-fire erosion can occur during and shortly after a fire. However, with root decay over time it is also important to keep on monitoring hillslopes, valleys, and colluvial hollows for change. Having high spatial and temporal resolution LiDAR datasets with pre- and post-fire data can provide invaluable data for debris flow and landslide hazards, as well as information necessary to determine the role of fire in long-term landscape evolution. I would also collect and analyze cosmogenic radio nuclides for both catchment average erosion rates and in-situ samples for soil production rates to quantify the role of fire on millennial timescales. In conjunction with the LiDAR analysis, I would conduct field work and install long-term monitoring systems. Specifically, I would collect samples for radiocarbon dating, soil organic carbon, and dissolved organic carbon measurements. Measuring SOC stocks (pre- and post-fire), SOC age, and DOC in areas with steep topography could increase the accuracy of global carbon models. Recently I have also been become more interested the role of pyrogenic carbon in the carbon in the global carbon cycle. What happens to carbon after fires and what is the role of post-fire erosion in moving this carbon around in a landscape? These types of measurements would help shed light on some of the questions I am starting to think about!

What else do you do? Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

Prior to the COVID19 pandemic, I played lots of volleyball! However, now I do a lot more running and climbing to maintain safe social distancing practices. I recently began to set aside designated time for reading non-research related “for fun” books and time to make earrings from baked polymer clay. I also enjoy hiking, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and hanging out with the cat, dog, and chickens that I live with!

Find out more about Brooke's research at: https://blogs.uoregon.edu/brookehunter/


In this picture, Brooke is digging a soil pit in the Douglas Fire (2013) area. You can see the burned trees in the background as well as new growth on the forest floor since the fire occurred. Collecting soil samples here is integral in understanding the effect of fire on soil organic carbon and post-fire erosion.