Understanding Forests and Climate
UI forestry professor earns national award to support research
Forests interact with climate in multiple ways: They release water into the atmosphere, which has a cooling effect. Dark-green expanses of trees absorb heat from the sun. And they play a vital role in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
UI researcher Tara Hudiburg was named among the 2015 National Science Foundation CAREER Award winners for her project exploring the effects of thinning practices on forest health, with the goal of understanding how management practices can reduce forest damage and, in turn, impact climate.
Trees take in carbon dioxide from the air as part of photosynthesis, releasing the oxygen but storing the carbon in their wood. U.S. forests capture approximately 20 percent of the country’s annual fossil fuel emissions.
But when drought, wildfire and other climate-change-related problems sweep through forests, the trees store less carbon. From May to October 2015, for example, drought conditions stunted growth in UI’s experimental forest on Moscow Mountain.
“Many of our study trees did not grow this summer, at least in terms of wood production,” Hudiburg says.
Hudiburg and her students have already been gathering data on the older trees in the experimental forest, and the CAREER award allows them to expand their work. They will measure the amount of growth, and thus carbon storage, in different ages and species of trees before and after forest thinning, including during summer drought conditions. They’ll also measure the carbon dioxide the trees give off, allowing them to determine the forest’s net carbon balance.
Back on campus, Hudiburg will use her expertise in Earth system modeling to integrate her experimental data with an advanced computer model, allowing her to make large-scale predictions about how thinning practices could affect forests and climate across the Northern Rockies region.
“We hope to be able to advance scientific knowledge about how forests grow and respond to drought and couple this with possible forest management strategies to increase forest resilience,” Hudiburg says.
For the educational component of her project, Hudiburg will use hands-on techniques to teach UI undergraduates taking her ecology class and regional high-school teachers at the McCall Outdoor Science School about forest and climate interaction. The students and teachers will gather data from trees and calculate how much carbon they’re taking up — and their results will become part of Hudiburg’s project.
“My hope is that if people can feel like they are contributing to climate change knowledge, especially when it concerns a natural resource they care about, that it will also encourage them to understand the science and learn what they can do about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions,” Hudiburg says.
Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications & Marketing.