Career Award to boost UO researcher’s peatland program

First published in Around the O on January 21, 2021.

Estelle Chaussard’s quest to understand how organic-rich peatlands deteriorate and find ways to mitigate damages that can result, such as flooding of productive land, will move into high gear come Sept. 1.

That’s when Chaussard, an assistant professor who joined the UO’s Department of Earth Sciences in spring 2019, will expand her research program under a five-year National Science Foundation Career Award.

“This grant will help establish my research program at the forefront of peatland geomorphology, a subdomain of geomorphology that focuses on the formation and dynamics of organic landscapes,” she said. “After working in Indonesia for over a decade, I am excited to create a research program that will help empower local communities to make informed decisions about the environmental challenges they face in the short and long term.”

Last June, Chaussard was a co-author on a Nature Geosciences paper that found that 90 percent of eight degraded tropical peatland sites in Indonesia are sinking by almost an inch a year. That subsidence is driven by deforestation and drainage for agriculture in a region under threat of rising seawater in coming decades.

Such research is vital to developing resilience strategies, said Chaussard, who also is a member of the Oregon Center for Volcanology and director of the Tectonic, Geohazards & Environmental Remote Sensing Lab.

“The impacts of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana would have been much less severe without the preceding decades of lowering of the ground elevation due to peat degradation,” she said. “Imagine peat degradation affecting coastal areas almost 10 times greater than the Louisiana coast. This is what's happening along the east coast of Sumatra and around the island of Borneo.”

Under her Career Award, Chaussard will expand her efforts to understand how fast Indonesia’s peatlands will sink below sea level and permanently flood productive land. Using both satellite- and ground-based datasets along with artificial intelligence tools, she is seeking to identify variables that may help control degradation rates of the peatlands and their carbon dioxide emissions.

Chaussard’s research was jump-started by a UO Early Career Faculty Travel Grant, which helped connect her with program directors at the National Science Foundation. Her team also was among seven interdisciplinary research groups awarded seed grants in 2019 through the Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation’s resilience seed funding program designed to help new faculty members build teams and forge collaboration with outside partners.

Chaussard, born in France, earned a doctorate in 2013 from the University of Miami in Florida. Before joining the UO, she completed postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked as an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo.

By Jim Barlow, University Communications