They’re no crystal ball, but Mitchell Power, curator of the Herbarium Collection at the Natural History Museum of Utah, uses plants to study the past.
When doing so, he always starts his research with the same question: is the climate now warmer or colder? Then he looks into how humans have impacted an area, among other things.
“It is important to explore our present to inform the past,” he said. “If we can understand the way things are now, we create a more accurate idea of the changes that have led to them.”
Power travels around the world for his research. He has gone to Russia, Brazil and the Virgin Islands. Power also teaches in the U’s Department of Geography and includes his students in his work. Last spring his class took a trip to Fish Lake and collected sediments. He said Utah has a rich history of plant collecting dating back to the mid 1800s.
“Utah has had a number of expeditions that have given us a look into the past,” Power said. “We have records dating back over 150 years that can give us a good indication of how Salt Lake has changed.”
This summer, Power will travel to Ethiopia to research the Axum Empire. The Axum people flourished around 800 AD and then disappeared. His work will include collecting soil samples, finding fossils and doing field work to discover why the empire collapsed.