What is Landscapes in Motion?

The southern Rockies are home to many stunning landscapes. Shady forests, pristine lakes, sunny meadows, and rocky outlooks—these features all have a history, and different forces have shaped them over time. As we study the disturbances affecting these landscapes, it is becoming clear that wildfire is a more complex force than previously imagined.

The goal of Landscapes in Motion is to improve our understanding of how, where, and when historical wildfires have occurred, allowing us to better understand the forces that have created the landscapes valued so highly by so many. Which forests were born of large, severe fires? Which have been shaped by less intense burns? How have they grown back?

How does it work?

This project has many different components, each using different methods to collect information about the forests and landscapes in the southern Rockies. Our team is using tree-ring samples, aerial images, historic photos, and computer models to understand when, how, and where the landscape has burned over the past century.

Exploring the forest’s story

There are many ways we can learn a forest’s story, including when and how it has burned.

 The story told by tree scars is an important component of Landscapes in Motion.

Tree rings, counted painstakingly under a microscope, reveal the year a tree sprouted. Black scars on a tree’s bark tell of a fire that was survived, while fallen and standing dead trees tell of a fire that was not. The more trees we sample, the better we understand the story of the forest as a whole.

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Aerial photos from 1950 hint at a forest’s origin by showing how even, or uneven, the tree canopy was. Even-aged forests are often born in the years following hot, deadly fires. Less severe fires leave behind many survivors, forming patches of tall, old trees surrounded by the young.


A window to the past

A hundred years ago, intrepid surveyors hiked into the backcountry and captured stunning photos of mountain vistas. For this project, our team walked in their footsteps and stood in the exact same spots, capturing photos that matched exactly. But what if these photos don’t match? By analysing these photos side-by-side, our team is putting together a picture of what has changed… and why.

 Willoughby Ridge in 1913 and 2006 (Mountain Legacy Project).

Willoughby Ridge in 1913 and 2006 (Mountain Legacy Project).

 Fording River Pass West in 1905 and 2009 (Mountain Legacy Project).

Fording River Pass West in 1905 and 2009 (Mountain Legacy Project).

Finding the connections

Tree rings, fire scars, and historical photos… these are all pieces of the landscape’s story, and our modelling team’s task is to figure out how they fit together. It’s not enough to know when and how a forest burned—we want to know why and what comes next. How did climate affect a wildfire’s pattern? What about an insect outbreak, or the hills and valleys of the terrain? How did shrubs, trees, and understory plants grow back to create the forests we know and value today? Our team is using cutting-edge technology to illuminate the connections driving landscape change.

Three teams, one mission

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Landscapes in Motion is not your average research project. Unlike many studies, the transfer of information among teams has been built into its very foundation.Images captured by the Oblique Photography team, for example, will help inform where the Fire Regime team should search for evidence of fire and collect tree-ring data. The Fire Regime team, in turn, can help test the assumptions used by the Modelling team, allowing them to improve their models as they go. By combining forces, our teams will be able to go above and beyond what any of them could accomplish separately.