Gough lab PhD student Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens and post-doc, Jeff Atkins, scope out a research site at UMBS.

As a leading international field station, UMBS is home to long-term research projects that help us understand and protect natural resources in the face of climate change and other threats. One such project – the Forest Resilience Threshold Experiment (FoRTE) – investigates forests’ ability to sequester carbon that might otherwise lend itself to atmospheric greenhouse gases amidst increasingly stressed ecosystems.

FoRTE was born from its successful predecessor, the Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment (FASET), also based at UMBS. The findings of FASET suggest that forest plant diversity, age, and disturbance indeed affect the vigor of carbon, water, and energy cycles. FoRTE follows up by asking how the severity of disturbance factors into the equation. This is a particularly important question in light of one of FASET’s more surprising discoveries: moderate levels of disturbance may not negatively impact forest growth—and in some cases, may actually enhance it. By experimentally varying disturbance levels, researchers can better understand what causes carbon sequestration to falter, and what may improve carbon uptake, plant biodiversity, and forest growth.

The experimental disturbance, scheduled for spring 2019 at UMBS, involves the girdling of trees to achieve 45, 65, and 85 percent tree mortality in forest ecosystems. “Girdling” is the careful removal of a strip of bark around a tree’s circumference, leading to death in the same way the damage from a boring insect might. This summer, primary investigator, Chris Gough, and his team from Virginia Commonwealth University and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will collect baseline, pre-disturbance data on various ecosystem structural and physiological measures. Over time, they will compare treated areas with their undisturbed counterparts, homing in on the mechanisms that determine the tipping point between resilience and declining forest carbon sequestration.

What makes UMBS such a good venue for this project? Gough breaks it down into three compelling reasons: 1) the foundation of century-old forest ecology research at the Station, much of which is centered on disturbance ecology (like the burn project), 2) the precedent of success set by FASET makes it easier to attract major funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 3) the synergy between FoRTE and other ongoing activities at UMBS, including partnerships with the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and with the atmospheric and hydrology communities at U-M.

The sheer size of the Station’s property also plays a role. “We showed, through FASET, that the Station could uniquely accommodate a large-scale experimental manipulation. There really aren’t that many places, given land size restrictions, where that’s possible,” says Gough.

The potential for FoRTE’s influence is broad-reaching, and has implications for forest management and education.

“We will make our results immediately accessible to forest managers working to maximize carbon storage, growth, and timber production in increasingly disturbed forest landscapes,” says Gough. “The project will produce openly available instructional materials for grade school teachers, train several graduate and undergraduate students onsite at UMBS, provide open and transparent sources of data and computer code to scientists and land managers, and form a student training partnership between a United States Department of Energy laboratory and academic institutions, including UMBS.”

Both the Station and researchers are grateful for the collaboration. According to Gough, “Our team views this as a next step in the long-running forest ecosystems research at the Biological Station, and we are incredibly fortunate to contribute to that legacy.”