CAREER: Forest-atmosphere interactions in an era of fire and drought
Forests store the most carbon of any terrestrial ecosystem and capture ~20% of U.S. fossil fuel emissions annually through uptake of carbon dioxide. Drought and wildfire caused by changing precipitation patterns, increased temperatures, increased fuel loads, and decades of fire suppression are reducing forest carbon uptake from local to continental scales. This trend is especially widespread in Idaho and the intermountain west and has important implications for climate change and forest management options. Given the key role of forests in climate regulation, understanding forest responses to disturbance and the feedbacks to the atmosphere is a key research and policy-relevant priority in the U.S. and elsewhere.
As temperature, fire, and precipitation regimes continue to change and influence forest mortality, there is a growing potential role for drought and fire mitigation efforts such as forest thinning. This research will evaluate the climate impacts of restoration thinning, a forest management activity aimed at reducing drought- and fire-related mortality, by combining new experimental plot data and earth system modeling. This project has three main goals: 1) quantify the spatial and temporal impacts of thinning on net regional greenhouse gas emissions and climate, 2) evaluate the impact of thinning on forest resilience to drought and disturbance, and 3) contribute to education of students and teachers about the role of forests in climate regulation.
By integrating novel, field-based technology, existing datasets, and state-of-the-art earth system modeling, this research will yield scientific insights into both climatic and management controls on tree growth as well as forest-atmosphere gas exchange in the mixed conifer forests of the Rocky Mountains in Idaho. The project objectives will advance the current understanding of how disturbance impacts forest carbon, water, and energy balance at time steps from minutes to years, which is crucial for earth system model development and evaluation. Improved earth system modeling and existing long-term ecological research data will be used to make predictions of forest-atmosphere interactions for the intermountain west over the 21st century. This will improve policy-relevant understanding of forest management practices and forest climate regulation. Additionally, this project will contribute to science education. Students and educators will be actively engaged in climate and forest science research through collection and sharing of data and will learn how forests capture and release carbon dioxide, and how these processes influence climate.