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Undergraduate Program Themes

Biophysical Processes

Our departmental focus on biophysical processes emphasizes the interrelations among biological systems and the physical environment. We examine how natural and human factors effect change in environments ranging from the high arctic, through temperate forests, to sub-tropical deserts. Our goal is not only to understand the biological and physical systems themselves, but also to expand our knowledge of the processes that shape the landscape through the movement of water and wind and through extreme disturbances generated by fire, drought and flood.

Our courses examine the importance of climate as a factor in the global scale distribution of vegetation and soils but also probe deeper to explore how plants influence climate, the development of soils, the flow of water, and the availability of nutrients and how plants influence each other in their communities.

The mutual interdependence of the physical and biological realms helps us to better understand both natural cycles and the longer-term responses to climate change. We place great emphasis on gaining practical experience in measuring these biophysical processes in both the field and laboratory and in analyzing their significance.

Amongst our specific foci we include:

  • Watershed and stream biogeochemistry, and their uses in characterizing the biological controls on nutrient and contaminant transport.
  • River systems, and a broader understanding of the impacts of fluvial forces on land surface change in conjunction with sediment transport and riverbed erosion.
  • Sub-arctic wetland environments, carbon cycling and storage, and long-term climate change influences on moss/lichen communities.
  • High arctic, permafrost-dominated environments that can serve to decipher the role of snowmelt in polar deserts in maintaining shallow pond-wetland systems.
  • Vegetation dynamics in desert and tropical ecosystems, specifically the interactions between vegetation and climate with particular emphasis on vegetation adapted to dry environments and the recolonization of disturbed areas.
  • Remote sensing and other geoinformatics techniques that can improve environmental monitoring, classification, and assessment, especially in relation to forested environments and large disturbance events.
  • Linking the information content of satellite images with features on the ground, so as to explore such phenomena as the factors influencing hydrologic storage in locales like the Oak Ridges Moraine.