Ecological Impacts of Extreme Weather Events: Effects of Tropical Cyclone Idai on a Recovering Ecosystem, Gorongosa National Park

2019 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2019-2021

With tropical cyclones projected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, Robert Pringle, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and PEI associated faculty, will lead a study on the impacts of tropical cyclones on the functioning and stability of natural systems. The project will be based in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park — where Pringle’s research group has worked extensively since 2012 — which experienced devastating flooding, damage to crops and loss of life in 2019 as a result of Cyclone Idai, one of the deadliest cyclones to affect the Southern Hemisphere. Pringle’s group will use their deep familiarity with the park’s ecosystem to gauge how Idai affected animal movement and diet, the abundance and diversity of wildlife, the structure of the park’s plant community, and the interactions between park wildlife and the villages surrounding Gorongosa, particularly as a result of food shortages. The researchers will document animal diet and movement using digital topographic maps, satellite imagery, camera traps and DNA sequencing. Their data will be used to help predict and mitigate future flood damage.

This project builds on the research program Pringle developed at Gorongosa through the 2013 Grand Challenges project “Ecosystem Spatial Pattern and Development Opportunities in African Rangelands” that he led with PEI associated faculty Corina Tarnita, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Image courtesy of Gorongosa National Park

Educational Impact

The project will allow for the continuing involvement of undergraduate students in the Pringle’s work at Gorongosa, which has included 2-4 PEI summer interns each year and multiple senior thesis students. In addition, undergraduates in civil and environmental engineering will be involved in designing and constructing next-generation weatherproof camera traps. Findings from this research will be incorporated into lectures and laboratory work on the ecology of extreme weather events for the course Pringle co-teaches, “Ecology: Species Interactions, Biodiversity and Society.” The project will hire a postdoctoral researcher to help coordinate work at Gorongosa.

Future Directions

Pringle plans to use project data to renew an active National Science Foundation grant he and Tarnita received based on their 2013 Grand Challenges project. The renewal will focus on the legacies of Idai on the resilience and recovery trajectory of the Gorongosa ecosystem, which, after being devastated by a 15-year civil war, is a unique case study in restoration. The new project also will seek to predict and mitigate the impacts of intense cyclones on agricultural and ecosystem-management strategies.

Participating Departments

Collaborating Institutions


Faculty

Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Research Associates

  • Matt Mumma, Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Meredith Palmer, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Rafael Valentin, Postdoctoral Research Associate and Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Graduate Students

  • Matt Hutchinson, EEB
  • Arjun Potter, EEB
  • Justine Atkins, EEB
  • Joel Abraham, EEB

Undergraduate Students

  • Maria Stahl ’20
  • Stephanie Neatby ’20
  • Vienna Lunking ’20