I-CARES grant helps establish natural drought laboratory

Southeast corner of the old 4-ha plot, Tyson Forest Dynamics Plot. Taken in Winter 2012

Southeast corner of the old 4-ha plot, Tyson Forest Dynamics Plot, Winter 2012

What will happen if climate change causes more frequent and extreme droughts that in turn lead to tree die-offs?

The scenario of drought-stricken forests becoming carbon sources rather than carbon sinks is at the heart of field research being done by Jonathan Myers, PhD, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

A forgotten forest plot at the university’s Tyson Research Center, a nearly 2,000-acre field station in Eureka, Missouri, piqued Myers’ interest in understanding forest-drought dynamics.

In 2010, while conducting his post-doctoral research at Tyson, staff mentioned a forest plot there that nobody was currently studying. He was intrigued by its unique and invaluable history. The plot had 30 years of data, which spanned two of the worst droughts in Missouri history, in 1988 and 2012.

Since 1981, the Tyson Plot was censused three times. In each census, all woody stems bigger than two centimeters in diameter were identified, mapped, measured and tagged.

Eventually, Myers and his collaborators began to wonder if Tyson might be an ideal place to create a new Forest Drought Laboratory (FDL).

Hand of researcher measure a tagged tree at Tyson Research Center.“Because extreme drought events are historically rare and sometimes unpredictable, it’s difficult to capture their effects on forest dynamics,” Myers said. “Understanding the impact of drought on forests is part of a bigger effort to understand how forests will change as the climate changes.”

In 2013, with Myers as principal investigator, he received an I-CARES (International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability) grant to expand the Tyson plot from 12 to 25 hectares and develop a forest-drought monitoring protocol. His collaborators were Amy Zanne and Brad Oberle from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Sean McMahon, the Temperate Forest Program coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution’s Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO).

“Together as a team we conceived the idea to capitalize on the long-term data from the plot to establish a plot that would not only allow us to answer basic questions about population and community ecology but also applied questions about how heat waves and drought are changing forests in this region,” Myers said.

The goal of the drought laboratory is to provide a powerful resource for studying drought-forest dynamics across complex landscapes.

“With the number and intensity of droughts expected to increase in the future, the forest drought laboratory will be especially poised to capture and monitor upcoming drought impacts relevant for socio-economic decisions in the region,” he said.

In November of 2013 the Tyson forest-dynamics plot and drought lab officially became a member of the Smithsonian ForestGEO network, the largest network of forest-ecology plots in the world. Information derived from the new drought laboratory will be shared with the Smithsonian’s worldwide network of forests plots.

“The results could inform socio-economic decisions based on projected changes in droughts under climate change and offer important pilot data for more ambitious funding requests, Myers said.

Myers said the I-CARES funding was invaluable for doubling the size of the plot and integrating the plot into ForestGEO.

“I-CARES funding is invaluable for junior faculty,” he said. “It’s one of the few opportunities for ecologists to apply for seed funding through the university.”

The Tyson plot was re-censused in the summer and fall of 2013. The bulk of the I-CARES grant money funded that labor-intensive effort of technicians, summer high school interns and Washington University undergraduates. At least a dozen high school students were involved in the data collection.

“The project itself contributed substantially to the mentoring and science outreach missions of the university,” Myers said. “The high school students and undergraduates were excited to know they were contributing to the establishment of that Midwestern dot on the global ForestGEO map.”

The data is already proving valuable, as Myers is among the authors of a recent paper published in Global Change Biology that includes 100 scientists from 24 countries.

Myers said the paper is noteworthy because it’s the first time all the principal investigators in ForestGEO have come together to produce a synthetic paper that introduces the Smithsonian global network to the broader community of biologists that are working on questions related to global change.

“The paper united the network in a way that hasn’t happened before. The I-CARES funding was instrumental in expanding the Tyson plot and integrating it into this global research endeavor,” he said.


I-CARES Media Contact: Myra Lopez, myralopez@wustl.edu