Each year, temperate forests remove and store the equivalent of about 1/5th of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel burning. This serves to slow the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that are warming the planet and disrupting the climate. For this reason, researchers are eager to predict whether forests will continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere into the future as conditions change on Earth’s surface.

A newly funded Biological Station research project will help answer the question of how forest stands varying in age and composition accumulate carbon over time. It will also examine how nutrient cycling rates change over decades and centuries following disturbances such as logging and burning. This project, entitled “LTREB*: Drivers of temperate forest carbon storage from canopy closure through successional time,” has received National Science Foundation funding for five years with a possibility of being continued for a 2nd 5-year cycle. 

“Our new LTREB project will leverage long established field experiments at UMBS and will build on existing research to improve scientific understanding of how forests interact with climate and management over the long- and short-term,” says Station Director and project lead investigator Knute Nadelhoffer.

Co-investigator and UMBS summer researcher Chris Gough of Virginia Commonwealth University adds, “This project builds on and extends one of the Station’s key research themes – forest biogeochemistry and the role forests in the upper Great Lakes Region play in sequestering carbon.” 

The researchers will measure a broad set of variables in forested parts of the Station that were cut and burned in 1911 by loggers and subsequently by Station staff to create experimental “Burn Plots.” These plots are roughly two-acre sections and were intentionally burned in either 1936, 1948, 1954, 1980 or 1998, then allowed to regrow.

By comparing forest plots that were cut and burned from 1910 through 1998 against plots in old growth forests in Colonial Point and other nearby sites, the scientists will investigate how disturbance, climate and ecology are linked to long-term patterns of carbon storage. What they learn can be applied to similar regions in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe and Asia.

It is both this global application to a pressing environmental challenge and the Station’s existing research that were integral to the team’s getting the grant. “LTREB funding requires that the proposers have existing long-term datasets that are central to the scientific questions of interest,” says co-investigator Luke Nave, a UMBS Research Scientist. “In the case of our project, decades of forest inventory datasets generated by students, researchers, and UMBS staff were crucial. If not for the efforts of previous researchers, the LTREB would not have been possible.”

The project’s breadth – investigators will make regular measurements of tree species, biomass, forest canopy architecture, soil carbon and nutrient contents, leaf and wood production, plant litter and wood inputs to soils, and nitrogen cycling rates – also creates avenues for student involvement. Nadelhoffer says the team plans to involve students who are taking classes at the Station in the collection of data. “This is a great opportunity them to participate in cutting-edge ecological research.”

*LTREB = Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology