I never thought I would get a PhD nor become a scientist. I always thought someone who spent years obsessing over a species, a case study, or interviews in “the field” was kind of weird. In deciphering my path, I think back to the photographs I took at 14 of the changing landscapes that surrounded me: roads cut through fields in my neighborhood or forests cleared. Even at that age, I asked hard questions. I wanted to understand the human history behind those changes. I remember feeling curious but also troubled by what I observed. Ever since then, I have been drawn to understanding and improving the complex relationships between humans and the natural world.
Over the past twenty years, the challenges between resource use and conservation directed me from one place on this planet to another. That early fascination with changing landscapes the human drivers of those changes led me to complete a dual-degree in Environmental Studies and Visual Art at Brown University. I completed much of my Visual Art training at the Rhode Island School of Design, focusing in documentary film and landscape photography. What I strived to understand intellectually, I documented visually. I bore witness to communities and landscapes transformed by oil and gas development in the Uintah Basin and confronted other changes, such as mining development in Alaska’s salmon-bearing watersheds. The social and ecological impacts I witnessed and the many challenges of sustainable resource management I confronted in various communities led me to the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, where I completed my PhD in 2015.
I became a scientist to go deeper—to develop the rigorous skills needed to address conservation issues in a rapidly changing world. I believe environmental problem-solving inherently requires rigorous interdisciplinary approach and defies all tradition of the academic discipline. I am both intrigued and concerned by the ways in which people are rapidly transforming the planet and the feedbacks those changes have on people.
My research contributes to improved resource management and conservation practices in a changing climate. I study ecological impacts of climate change and how people respond to those impacts through behavioral change or adaptations in resource management and conservation practice. I am an ecologist but I consider people to be a part of nature or any “system” I study. I cringe at being labeled a natural or a social scientist; I am some combination of the two. Humans and natural systems are inherently linked, and through this lens, I aspire to create a path towards greater sustainability.
I value publishing through the peer-review process for many good reasons, but I do not believe that act alone is enough. I never did. Listening and understanding people’s perspectives are equally important to me as analyzing and predicting ecological changes. Alongside my research, I have written for a broader audience through The New York Times. My work has been covered in many other media outlets such a radio, magazine, and blog. Motivated to share science and knowledge that can have a positive effect on human health and the environment, I have written in the Op-Ed format for the San Francisco Chronicle and worked as an associate producer on environmental documentary films. I strive to maintain a sense of compassion for the human condition and to bring heart and voice to the research I conduct without compromising the science. It is not just the science but also the engaging delivery of discovery that inspires change.
Photo: Clayton Boyd 2017
I study the ecological impacts of climate change and how people respond to impacts occurring in their local environment.
I am part of team of researchers that recently received funding from the National Science Foundation for an interdisciplinary project on redwoods, climate change, and adaptation. For more information on this multi-year study, check out the Summen Project (named after the Ohlone word for redwood) or see What Do Redwoods Have to Do with Climate Change by Loretta Anderson, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
My dissertation, Forest Communities in a Changing Climate: Social and Ecological Responses to Yellow-Cedar Decline, focused on adaptation to climate change through an interdisciplinary case study of yellow-cedar decline, a tree species dieback associated with climate change in Alaska. I studied how forests affected by the dieback develop over time and how forest users and managers are currently adapting to the climate-induced mortality. By integrating social and ecological analyses, my research provided an interdisciplinary approach to identify adaptation strategies for species impacted by climate change.
I actively build bridges between academic researchers, resource managers, conservation practitioners, and the local communities where I work through my collaborative, place-based research approach.
Buma, B., Hennon, P.E., Harrington, C., Popkin, J.R., Krapek, J., Lamb, M., Oakes, L.E., Saunders, S., and S. Zeglen. (2017) Emerging climate-driven disturbance processes: Widespread mortality associated with snow to rain transitions across 10° of latitude and half the range of a climate-threatened conifer. Global Change Biology 23(7): 2903-2914
Oakes, L. E., N. M. Ardoin, and E. F. Lambin. (2016) “I know, therefore I adapt?” Complexities of individual adaptation to climate-induced forest dieback in Alaska. Ecology and Society 21(2): 40.
Oakes, L.E., P.E. Hennon, N.M. Ardoin, D. D’Amore, A. Ferguson, E.A. Steel, D. Wittwer, and E.F. Lambin. (2015) Conservation in a social-ecological system experiencing climate-induced tree mortality. Biological Conservation 192: 276-285.
Oakes, L.E., P.E. Hennon, K.L. O’Hara, and R. Dirzo. (2014) Long-term vegetation changes in a temperate forest impacted by climate change. Ecosphere 5:135.
Ardoin, N.M., L.E. Oakes, I. Phukan, and A. Bowers. Measuring the impact of environmental education on conservation outcomes.
Oakes, L.E. Forest ecosystems and human values of nature in a changing climate. In Beach, R., J. Share, and A. Webb, eds. (2017) Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference. Routledge. London, United Kingdom.
Oakes, L.E., Kelsey, E., and M. J. Brody. (2016) The fate of nature: Rediscovering our ability to rescue the Earth. Journal of Environmental Education, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.2015.1102697.
Oakes, L.E., (2014) Where we draw lines: policy and wilderness. In D. Bloomfield, Wilderness, pp. 109–113. UNM Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Available on Amazon.
As an educator in both formal and informal contexts, I focus on three key goals to help others develop a sense of stewardship and to improve sustainability:
1. fostering awareness of the many ways in which people depend on nature for the services it provides;
2. developing an ability to extrapolate local impacts from complex concepts and patterns of global change;
3. encouraging creative and effective communication of environmental issues to a broad public.
I like using place-based education to illuminate lessons learned about our rapidly changing planet from satellites and big data in the local context. I believe this approach can help people better understand the complexities of global change and motivate action. I also believe that most learning occurs when people feel personally connected to the ideas and issues. So whether I am teaching about climate change, sustainability, forest ecology, or science writing, I support the discovery of that connection to inspire positive action.
I am a Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, where I teach writing and communications through courses focused on sustainability, values of nature, and environmental change. In the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, I have team-taught field courses in Alaska and instructed an environmental science-writing seminar for PhD students. In early 2016, I was Scientist-In-Residence at The Castilleja School in Palo Alto, where I taught a weeklong climate change curriculum for 300 students. I like combining adventure with education and have also worked as professional guide for expedition trips with National Geographic Expeditions. I am a founding member and current advisory council member of the Inian Islands Institute, a field-based educational institute in southeast Alaska to train young environmental leaders.
For more on the field course that I co-developed and co-teach biannually, check out this multi-media story.
Mosbergen, D. (2016, Oct. 13) “The haunting sound of climate change over 100 years.” The Huffington Post.
Kahn, B. (2016, Sept. 21) “Data, turned into music, reveals an odd scenario: death by freezing, in a warming world.” Scientific American.
Kahn, B. (2016, Sept. 20) “This is what climate change sounds like, in D minor.” Climate Central.
Nijhuis, M. (2016, Sept. 14) “The sound of climate change.” The Atlantic.
Nijhuis, M. (2016, Sept. 7) “This is the sound of a forest changing.” The Last Word on Nothing.
Rassler, B. (2016, Sept. 6) “The art of turning climate change science into music.” Outside Magazine.
Andis, A. (2016, March) “Global warning: Exploring the contradictions of climate change in Southeast Alaska’s kingdom of ice.” Adventure Kayak Magazine.
von Kaenel, C. (2015, Oct. 23) “Researchers turn to Alaskan locals for advice on protecting trees from warming.” ClimateWire.
Gilman, S. (2015, Oct. 19) “Is the climate change-battered conifer moving northward?” The High Country News.
Hinkley, S. (2015, Oct. 15) “How climate change is forcing us to rethink natural parks.” The Christian Science Monitor.
Than, K. (2015, Oct. 15) “Climate change requires new conservation models.” Science Daily.
Jaggard, V. (2015, Aug. 26) “Death by fungus, and other fun facts about fungal friends and foes.” Smithsonian.
Fresco, N., L. Krutikov, K. Timm, R. Winfree, B. Rice, J. Morris, and J. Geddens. (2014) State of change: climate change in Alaska’s national park areas. U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Alaska Region: 13.
Schulman, N. (2014, Feb.) “Extreme Measures: In Alaska a New Breed of Scientists Are Using Kayaks to Aid Ecological Understanding and Stewardship.” Adventure Kayak Magazine, pp. 45–52.
Chirbas, K. (2014, Jan. 14) “Preserving Alaska’s hobbit hole.” The Stanford Daily 244(51):1.
Woolsey, R. (2013, Sept. 16) “Examining the effects of yellow-cedar decline.” KCAW Raven Radio.
Woolsey, C. (2013, Sept. 11) “In water, forest, and lab, Stanford ‘SoCo’ examines Alaska’s natural systems.” KCAW Raven Radio. Sitka, Alaska.
Treinish, G. (2013, July 30) “Sea lions, bears, salmon, and cedars: paddling in wild Alaska with a purpose.” National Geographic.
Hennon, P.E., D.V. D’Amore, and M. Oliver. (2013) Forests in decline: yellow-cedar research yields prototype for climate change adaptation planning. Science Findings, USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station: 1–5.
Motivated to share science and knowledge that can have a positive impact on human health and the environment, I have written opinion pieces about the work of my colleagues and also worked as an associate producer on environmental documentaries. I believe it is the blend of new discoveries about our rapidly changing world and compelling narrative that reaches the masses to chart a new course forward. I am currently writing In Search of The Canary Tree (Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2018), a book about finding faith in the ability for humans to cope with climate change impacts.
Podcasts and radio stories that have covered my research:
Before pursuing my PhD, I co-produced two environmental documentaries about mining development proposed at the headwaters of the world’s largest remaining sockeye salmon fishery in Alaska. I worked with filmmakers from feltsoulmedia.com and reporters from PBS/Frontline on these projects:
Please contact me if you’re interested in supporting a new documentary project about forests impacted by climate change.
I present my scientific research at academic conferences, but I also reach a broader public by presenting in a variety of public educational settings and events.
Oakes, L.E. (2016) “A reading from The Canary Tree.” In: Carlise, L., T. Hayden, P. Freeman, N. Romano, K. Mineheart, R. Nevle, L.E. Oakes, and E. Polk. “Stanford’s Rooted Words: Farm Fresh Words for Hungry Listeners.” LitQuake, San Francisco, California, Oct. 15.
Oakes, L.E. (2015) “A reading from The Canary Tree.” In: Carlise, L., T. Hayden, L. Hill, R. Nevle, L.E. Oakes, and E. Polk. “Hungry Writers in a Dry Land: Stanford’s Environmental Communications Graduate Program.” LitQuake, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 17.
Bloomfield, D. and L.E. Oakes. (2014) “A journey towards wilderness.” Art and Science Education Series, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque, NM, Oct. 14.
Bloomfield, D., and L.E. Oakes. (2014) “A journey towards wilderness.” Moving Mountains Symposium, Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, Telluride, CO, May 24.
Oakes, L.E. (2014) “From gold mining to climate change: environmental change on the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, 1953–2014.” In: Katchadourian, N., L. Braitman, K. Henderson, S. Katchadourian, H. Katchadourian, N. McEvoy, B. McMullen, L.E. Oakes, C. Peternell, and D. Rosenberg. “Sorted Books.” Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA, Jan. 11.
Oakes, L.E. (2013) “Moving beyond one species’ vulnerability to climate change: succession in forests affected by yellow-cedar decline.” Communicating Local Impacts of Climate Change Training. Island Institute, National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, Sitka, AK, Sept. 14.
Portola Valley, CA