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Grass, Trees, and Fire: Elements of a Savanna Lifecycle

It was a pleasure to read and write about mathematical modeling of savanna and forest ecology for SIAM News. SIAM News is "the newsjournal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics." I worked closely with all three authors to ensure that I understood their work and correctly translated it. This article is unusual in that it represents the first time I have sent an editor a draft and was asked to make it more complex: more math please. Ha! But of course, their readers are mathematicians and want to see the details.

One of the most interesting parts of this work, to me, was the finding that unlike many ecologists assume, you can't just plop yourself into an environment with a certain temperature profile and a certain rain profile and know what it will look like. You can't say, oh, I'm at this spot so I'll see grassland, or here at this latitude and elevation I expect forest. The history of the spot is also very important.

This piece is an example of science WRITING rather than science JOURNALISM, which is an essential distinction to many professionals, likely lost to most everyone else. Here, my duty is to the authors and the publication, and I send my drafts to the researchers for correction and review. In journalism, my primary responsibility is instead to the public, and very few journalistic publications I have worked for will allow writers to submit drafts or even quotes to sources. This is why I always prefer to work for publications that employ fact checkers--they are a safety net for both me and my sources.

Much thanks goes to my editor and the authors of this study.

An artificially fire-suppressed savanna in South Africa, depicting a woodland of savanna trees. Image courtesy of Carla Staver.

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