Hydrologist Exploring the
Uncharted Wetlands of Patagonia
By John Wray
etlands hydrologist Jack Clausen is breaking new ground.
He is mapping, characterizing and cataloguing different types of wetlands in Patagonia, a magnificent but rugged, sparsely populated region of Chile at the southern terminus of the Andes mountains, on the western edge of South America.
His latest research was part of an expedition to the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, that took place earlier this semester, when Clausen, an associate professor of natural resources management and engineering, and Morty Ortega, an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering, led 26 students and scientists to study the natural history, flora and fauna of the region.
The Torres del Paine National Park is probably one of the few places left on earth where this kind of groundbreaking work can still be done, Clausen says. With the spectacular heights of the snow-covered Andes in the distance, it may also be one of the most beautiful places.
"In Patagonia, in the midst of the rugged, arid steppes, we discovered wetlands of a variety and beauty that were astonishing," he says.
The wetlands are strikingly well defined, he adds. Indeed, they are so colorful and "well-kempt looking," that they almost shock the observer into thinking they can hardly be natural.
"To be doing research in such a magnificent place is truly a scientist's dream," he says.
He began these studies a year earlier, as a member of the 2001 UConn expedition to Patagonia, when he identified more than 80 wetlands and started work on a new wetland classification system for the area, based on vegetation type, quality and quantity of water, and geographic setting.
During that first trip, Clausen says, he was amazed by the immense variety of wetlands in Patagonia that had never been described, wetlands that resembled nothing he had ever seen before.
If there were any wetlands in the United States that resembled those in Patagonia, Jack Clausen would likely know about them.
Clausen completed a BS in forest science, followed by a master's and Ph.D. in forest hydrology, all at the University of Minnesota. During the 1970s, he worked at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and participated in the Minnesota Peat Program, investigating the extent of the state's peat resources. He then taught forest hydrology for nine years at the University of Vermont, before joining the UConn faculty as assistant professor of natural resources in 1990.
The most important, he says, and one of the most visually striking, is the vega, a wet meadow. This wetland, which has been commonly viewed as grassland, is a favored grazing place for the guanaco, a llama-like South American relative of the camel.
Vegas generally occur on gentle slopes and resemble a lawn in their appearance. They are often bowl-shaped with distinct rounded edges. Some are surrounded by a natural moat. The dominant vegetation in the vega is a combination of spikerush (Eleocharis spp.) and rush (Juncus spp.).
Among the other wetlands identified by Clausen and his students were sedge wetlands, mare's tail-milfoil marsh, buttercup wetlands, and bulrush marshes.
As there are no accurate topographic maps of the region, and the expedition was equipped with Global Positioning Systems equipment, the group also undertook a mapping project, and a total of 300 different wetlands were examined, catalogued and mapped.
The Department of Natural Resources has applied to the National Science Foundation for funding to establish a permanent research station in the park so that the important research on wildlife, habitat, and wetlands can continue.