The Data Rescue Interns:
Dr. George H. La Roi (1936–2018) committed his working life to demystifying the ecological workings of Canada’s boreal forests. He completed his undergraduate degree at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where he also met his wife, Nanci. His subsequent graduate work at Duke University under Dr. Henry J. Oosting took him on a wild adventure from Alaska to Newfoundland to examine biological trends in white spruce and black spruce forests along this broad geographic gradient.
After earning his doctorate in 1963, George moved to Edmonton, Alberta to take on a faculty position in Botany at the University of Alberta. He ran a successful forest ecology program focused on the plant ecology of alpine, boreal, and taiga ecosystems until his retirement in 1997, and then continued research as a professor emeritus, only giving up field work in 2015 at the age of 79. George recognized that, though boreal forests were thriving in the 1980s, anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and airborne industrial pollutants posed an existential threat to Canadian forests, necessitating ongoing long-term ecological monitoring. In George’s prescient words “Let us now begin to build a truly effective ecological defense system for this part of our planet Earth, before it is too late!” (La Roi, 1987).
George passed away in 2018, leaving behind a legacy that displays a passion for Canadian forests and long-term ecological monitoring – as well as a vast collection of unpublished, long term data.
The Seasonal Dynamics (SEADYN) project began in the 1980s as a means of
characterizing the successional processes and seasonal plant community variation in Alberta boreal forests. George established eight permanent study areas in the Hondo-Slave Lake region, and 16 ecologically similar stands in the Athabasca Oil Sands (AOS) region, an area where there were concerns about possible substantial sulfur dioxide pollution from industrial activity (oil sands processing). These stands were painstakingly monitored by George and his team of personnel (including his wife, Nanci) at monthly intervals from May through October of 1981–1984, often in “working conditions that [were] all too frequently adverse” due to inclement weather and clouds of biting insects (La Roi, 1987). During surveys, George characterized the vascular plant, bryophyte, and lichen communities within plots, along with collection of forest mensuration and temperature data. Forest litter production, soil moisture availability, historic tree ring growth, and other biological metrics were also characterized during this period. The scope of this work is stupendous, considering that a single vascular plant community survey could take between two to five person-hours to complete, and that up to 600 such surveys were required each month.
Following this intensive four years of sampling, George continued to survey the Hondo-Slave Lake stands on an annual basis until 1989 through his Annual Dynamics (ANNDYN) project, and then at five-year intervals thereafter in conjunction with the Canadian Forest Service (Dan MacIsaac) and Dr. Ellen Macdonald at the University of Alberta. Over 200 plant species were identified in these surveys. In addition, tagged individual trees in the Hondo stands were monitored for size, age, and other demographic data in 1982, 1982, 1991 and 2000. The future of the Hondo SEADYN plots was of the utmost importance to Professor La Roi. In an email to colleagues in 2016 requesting assistance to continue the SEADYN project, he referred to his request as “the most important science-related letter I have ever composed.”
Living Data Project interns Jenna Loesberg (PhD Candidate in Geography) and Amelia
Hesketh (PhD Candidate in Zoology), supervised by Drs. Ellen Macdonald and Justine Karst at the University of Alberta and by Dr. Ellen Bledsoe at the University of Regina, chose to focus on tidying and archiving the SEADYN and ANNDYN data for both the Hondo-Slave Lake and AOS regions collected between 1980 and 2015. Bequeathed with a box of paper data and a series of ancient computer files in proprietary and often discontinued file formats, Loesberg and Hesketh sifted through documents, including over 450 individual data files, converted files into machine-readable formats, collated and organized data into spreadsheets, updated species names to their current, accepted names, cleaned the data based on field notes and information from the original hard copy data sheets, and wrote informative metadata to assist in data reuse. UBC undergraduates aided the graduate interns in data sorting and transcription.
The goals of the project were to make data available for re-use in a public archive and submit a data paper to assist in advertising the availability of these data to the ecological research community, both of which are forthcoming. We hope that these data will prove useful for analyses of long-term trends in boreal forests, both within Canada and globally.
La Roi, G.H., Ross, M.S., Ellis, R.A. 1987. Ecological monitoring research in Pinus
banksiana-dominated forests of the Athabasca Oil Sands and Hondo – Slave Lake areas of Alberta during the period 1981-1984. Volume I. Text. Department of Botany, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada.