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Entrance to Congaree National Park
Entrance to Congaree National Park.

USC geographers swamped in climate research

By Peggy Binette, mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-5400

Under one of the highest natural tree canopies in the world, University of South Carolina geographer Dr. John Kupfer can be found checking the vital signs of the floodplain that is the Congaree National Park.

For six years, Kupfer, a specialist in biogeography and landscape ecology in USC’s College of Arts and Sciences, has conducted research in the park, taking students several months each year to check flood levels, rates of sedimentation and the health of plant species along the 27,000-acre tract of old-growth bottomland forest that is situated outside Columbia.

More recently Kupfer has turned his attention to studying the effects of climate change at the park, which is the largest remaining old-growth floodplain forest remaining in North America. The project is one of about a dozen around the country being funded by the National Park Service to look at the impact of climate change at the nation’s parks.

Working with fellow USC geographers Dr. Greg Carbone and doctoral candidate Kimberly Meitzen, biologist Dr. Dan Tufford and a team of graduate students, Kupfer is creating computer simulation models that project how changes in temperature and precipitation and dam operations for water release will impact river flow, flooding, vegetation and wildlife over the next 50 to 100 years.

“Rivers respond to changes in precipitation and temperature,” Kupfer said. “Those changes alter the level and spread of water into the floodplain, cause environmental change to the habitat of key forest species. It is critical to understand this entire sequence of change.” In the case of the Congaree, the release of water from the Parr Shoals Dam on the Broad River and Saluda Dam on the Saluda River also impacts the river flow, to a lesser extent.

Kupfer said the Congaree National Park is a compelling place to understand floodplains and river-based systems.

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