Oregon State University announced Tuesday it has received a five-year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate increasing impacts of drought, insect attacks and fires on forests in the West, and to project how the influence of climate change may affect forest die-offs in the future.
The researchers also will enhance an earth system model to allow them to predict when forests are becoming vulnerable to physiological stress, then create strategies to minimize impacts of climate, insects and fire.
“The western United States has gone through two decades of devastating forest loss, and we don’t even fully know why it happened, much less how to predict these events,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU and a principal investigator on the grant.
“Certainly wildfire, bark beetle infestation and drought play a role, but the intersection of these factors with forest management decisions hasn’t been well-explored," he said.
“A change in severity of drought, for example, can make the difference between trees losing some needles and wiping out the entire stand,” added Mote, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. “The margin between life and death in the forest can be rather small.”
Other lead investigators from OSU on the project include Beverly Law, a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, who will focus on modeling forest processes with the Community Land Model; and Andrew Plantinga, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics, whose expertise is on the economics of land use, climate change and forests.
“Climate variation and extremes can impact trees differently depending on species-specific traits that determine how they compete and respond to environmental conditions,” Law said. “We know little about how physiological limits vary by species, and have not incorporated such knowledge in Earth system models.”
The OSU researchers note that forest management decisions could potentially play a role during periods of drought, for example.
Drought-stressed trees become vulnerable when they experience vapor pressure deficits – and cannot take in enough water to sustain them, or to remain vigorous enough to help repel invading bark beetles, said Law, who is co-lead principal investigator on the project.
An excess of trees in an area of limited water might benefit from targeted thinning, so fewer trees remain to compete for the same amount of water, Law noted. However, forests that already have low densities “are not expected to respond well,” she said.
“What we don’t know,” Mote said, “is what the threshold is between stress and mortality, which trees to thin and how many, and whether such a strategy not only works, but is economically feasible for landowners.”
Law said the intervention strategies “should not result in potentially harmful ecological impacts on habitat and soil quality.”
Among the goals of the project are to:
- Improve the ability of a leading land surface model to predict tree mortality;
- Map the vulnerability of western forests to mortality under present and future climate conditions, particularly in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho;
- Apply forest vulnerability data to forest sector models to help land managers better predict ecological and economic outcomes, including timber production, forest recreation and water use.
As part of the study, the researchers will run computer models that will utilize a crowd-sourced computing effort called Weatherathome.net, through which a network of thousands of volunteers will use their home computers to run climate model scenarios. Such a network can equal or exceed the output of a supercomputer.
The OSU grant is part of the inter-agency Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction Using Earth System Models Program, which is coordinated by the National Science Foundation and includes USDA and the Department of Energy.