Hurricane-Inspired Study Earns F&ES Student Inaugural Bormann Prize

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

2013 Bormann Award

Bryan Yoon, second from right, receives the F. Herbert Bormann Prize in October. Also shown are Rick Bowden, Peter Raymond, Chris Bormann, David Skelly and F&ES Dean Peter Crane.

Before he arrived at F&ES in the fall of 2010, Bryan Yoon had never heard of Herbert Bormann.
The first time he came across Bormann’s name was during a class that year, when the former F&ES professor’s book, Biogeochemistry of a Forested Ecosystem, was the assigned textbook. Before long he learned more about Bormann’s pioneering work in ecosystems research, including the study that first called the world’s attention to the threat of acid rain in the 1970s.

Three years later, F&ES doctoral student Yoon says he considers Bormann, who died in 2012, a personal hero and views Bormann's work as one of environmental science’s “great success stories.”
So for Yoon, it was especially meaningful last month when he was awarded the inaugural F. Herbert Bormann Prize, established to honor research that builds on the legacy of the long-time F&ES professor. Yoon received the prize for a 2012 study that revealed the staggering amount of organic matter released into a New York reservoir during Hurricane Irene a year earlier.
“This is the greatest honor I can ever get,” Yoon said last week. “This is like a physicist getting an award [named] after Newton or Einstein. That’s how much it means to me.

“Not only was Herb Bormann a pioneer in my field, but he’s a great example of what a scientist should be. His ability to collect long-term data, find patterns, and share his findings in a way that is directly applicable to our society.”
During 2011, Yoon had been collecting his own data, on the amount of dissolved organic matter entering the Catskills’ Ashokan Reservoir — a critical source of drinking water for New York City. In late August of that year, as Hurricane Irene churned toward the northeastern U.S., Yoon’s adviser, Peter A. Raymond, suggested it was a good opportunity to gauge the effects of an extreme weather event on the local ecosystem’s carbon cycle.
Yoon drove up to the Catskills, set up his equipment, and took shelter in his uncle’s house nearby as the storm dumped 11 inches of rain in two days. Once local roadways were reopened following the storm Yoon collected the samples and analyzed the data.
irene samples Murky samples collected after Hurricane Irene vividly illustrated the change in water quality following the storm.
“We looked at all the samples and realized that this is the biggest flux of carbon that’s ever happened in one event that’s been recorded,” he remembers. “The story itself is not that amazing. But the sheer magnitude of what happened is worth recording.” The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“The models all agree that in a warmer world the intensity of the largest storms will increase,” said Raymond, a professor of ecosystems ecology and co-author of the paper. “This study by Bryan demonstrates these types of changes will have large impacts on movement of nutrients and pollutants off of land.”
It was also the kind of research Herb Bormann would have loved, says David K. Skelly, a professor of ecology and assistant dean for research at F&ES. One of Bormann’s great legacies, Skelly says, was his ability to illustrate the interconnectedness of ecosystems and to communicate why it matters.

“Many of the current concerns about everything from climate change to sea-level rise are extensions of this kind of thinking,” he said. “That the living and non-living parts of the Earth are connected together. And when you push on one part of it, it influences other parts.
“He had a big interest in how the functioning of aquatic systems influenced ecosystems… and he understood very well that storm flows were absolutely critical and that most of the action in aquatic stream systems doesn’t happen on a nice normal sunny day. It happens during these horrendous storm events.

“Bryan was pretty fearless and went out and collected a lot of really, really hard to collect data that showed just how important these massive storm events are.”
Yoon says he wasn’t trained to be a scientist before he arrived at F&ES. Now, he says, he’s getting his Ph.D. and is a teaching assistant in classes that Bormann would have taught at Yale. And he’s starting to understand the school’s powerful lineage.
Over the summer, he attended a conference at New Hampshire’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, where Bormann collected data for his historic acid rain research decades ago. As he toured the station where Bormann had worked, a guide asked if there was anyone in the group from Yale.
“I said, ‘I’m here,’” Yoon recalled. “And he said, ‘You guys haven’t been just a big source of research, but a powerhouse of research.’ He said, ‘The way you guys always push the boundaries of research to the next level.’
“We’ve had a lot of famous ecologists and ecosystems scientists on this hill,” Yoon says. “Herb Bormann was one of them. That makes me really proud.”