Expert in Disturbance Ecology, Ecosystem Dynamics Joins YSE Faculty
Dr. Sparkle Malone, whose research focuses on disturbance regimes and how they alter the structure and functions of ecosystems, has joined the YSE faculty as an assistant professor. This spring, she will teach a course on methane dynamics, an area of growing concern as atmospheric methane levels increase.
From a human perspective, disturbances in nature, such as major weather events and natural disasters, are inconvenient at best — and life-altering at worst.
But in many instances, these disturbances are essential for our ecosystems, says Dr. Sparkle Malone, an expert in disturbance ecology and ecosystem dynamics. They promote adaptation and resilience, ensuring these systems are healthy and properly functioning.
“When we think about how systems are structured and how they function, a lot of that has to do with the frequency and intensity of disturbances,” says Malone. “Although we often think of them as negative things that happen to systems, the reality is that they're opportunities for change. They're opportunities for systems to update and become more relevant to current conditions.
“Understanding the role of disturbances and how that's changing over time is essential to really knowing what systems are doing, how healthy they are, and what their capacity will be in the future.”
Beginning this fall, Malone joined the Yale School of the Environment faculty as an assistant professor, a tenure-track appointment supported by an endowment for the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture. In the position — the first of two YSE faculty positions supported by YCNCC — she will continue to conduct cutting-edge research that is relevant to nature-based climate solutions and will also work with other faculty members to develop the direction and mission of the Center as a member of the YCNCC Scientific Leadership Team.
In Spring 2023, Malone will teach a seminar course on methane dynamics, which covers the understanding of atmospheric methane and challenges associated with mitigating methane emissions. She will then lead a modeling course on methane dynamics next year, which will include data collection and remote sensing techniques.
These courses tie into Malone’s current research, which focuses on carbon dynamics — the capacity for natural systems to capture and sequester carbon. “Knowing the capacity of our natural and managed systems to help us capture carbon can help develop climate mitigation strategies,” says Malone, “but we also need to know how that capacity will change with disturbances that we know will occur with greater frequency.”
A lot of Malone’s work, she says, relies on quantitative approaches to measuring systems. Integrating data from different sources — remote sensing, eddy covariance, high-frequency pulse data, plot-level data — allows her to monitor systems and understand how they are changing, providing valuable insight into fluxes of carbon, water, and energy across various systems.
“Dr. Malone tackles broad challenges in ecology with novel techniques and rigorous methods,” says Kominoski. “Her research focuses on disturbances and land-water-atmospheric gas fluxes — particularly methane, which is rapidly increasing worldwide despite inadequate measures to isolate diverse sources.”
Recently, Malone participated in a research project — NASA Carbon Monitoring System Blueflux — measuring greenhouse gases in Florida’s mangrove ecosystems, from individual leaves to the air hundreds of feet above. Mangroves are critical protection against erosion and storm surge, provide habitat for wildlife, and store large amounts of carbon. Mangrove populations, however, have decreased considerably in recent decades due to coastal development, deforestation, sea level rise, and more frequent hurricanes.
The project, led in part by Peter Raymond, professor of ecosystem ecology at YSE, relied on data collected by Malone’s research team, which measured carbon fluxes to determine whether certain mangrove systems were carbon and methane sinks or sources.
Working with the Blueflux project gave Malone her first opportunity to work with YSE students. She says she has been impressed by their “strong and independent research,” as well as their interest in tying equity and inclusion into their work.
“They are eager to come up with new ways of evaluating conditions and asking questions,” Malone says.
Prior to YSE, Malone was an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University, where she led the Malone Disturbance Ecology Lab at the school’s Institute of Environment. Before FIU, she worked as a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, researching disturbance regimes in western forests. Malone earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forest resources and conservation from the University of Florida, and completed her doctoral studies at the University of Alabama.