Lauren Koenig: Understanding Resilience in Rivers
By 2021 Ted Smith Environmental Storytelling Intern Lena Beck
If you are an organism that lives in a river, rapid and extreme change is just a fact of life. That’s why Dr. Lauren Koenig, one of Flathead Lake Biological Station’s newest postdoctoral researchers, is studying how rivers respond to disturbances like floods and storms. In other words, she’s looking at the resiliency of rivers — how quickly they can recover back to their pre-disturbance state.
The frequency and severity of disturbance events has changed over the last several decades, largely due to climate change and landscape development. And for the most part, freshwater scientists have only been able to investigate the resilience of one river at a time. Lauren’s research aims to expand the scope of this analysis to span the continental United States through computer modeling. Since photosynthesis rates in rivers are impacted by disturbances, Lauren is looking at how long it takes for photosynthesis rates to return to normal after a flood or storm.
“I'm trying to leverage new capabilities that we have to reliably measure photosynthesis rates, and develop computer models to understand that resilience across multiple rivers and across repeated disturbance events,” Lauren said.
By expanding the focus beyond one river or one storm event, Lauren hopes that patterns will emerge, giving her some general trends in river resilience. This work could even carry over to other ecological pursuits outside of river systems.
“Many disciplines within ecology are interested in resilience of ecosystems in the face of disturbance,” Lauren said. “So whether it's big storms in a river or drought and wildfire in a forest, for example, we actually think that rivers might provide ideal test beds for developing and honing some of our understanding of disturbance simply because they're disturbed more often and more regularly.”
Lauren got her Bachelor of Science degree at University of California Santa Barbara, where she studied aquatic biology. Her interest evolved into a focus on rivers, which took her to graduate school in New Hampshire. This led her into the same sphere as FLBS Professor Dr. Bob Hall, and they co-authored several papers together. When he started looking for a postdoctoral researcher, Lauren was a natural fit.
Lauren’s early career involved more field work, but she has gradually shifted over to computer modeling. She is now interested in questions that have to be answered across larger temporal and spatial scales.
“We're at this really exciting time, where in rivers but also in other ecosystems, we can collect data on many parameters across wide areas of space, and also almost continuously through time,” Lauren said. “And so we need to have quantitative frameworks for translating that data into our understanding of how these ecosystems work.”
Lauren says one of the challenging things about working with water is that it has complex social and economic implications in every community. But she is spurred on by the sheer importance of water, rivers, and the work that she is doing.
“We now have the data to ask some of the questions we've wanted to for a long time,” Lauren said. “And so I'm interested in actually developing some of the tools and working on those problems, to translate those datasets into ecological understanding.”