WERC Publication Brief: Long-Term Research in Forest Dynamics. Updated February 2012
Forests provide humans with irreplaceable goods and services like wood products, clean water, biodiversity and recreational and spiritual opportunities. To sustain the health and production of America’s forests, federal agencies such as the National Park Service and USDA Forest Service depend on sound science to guide their management decisions.
Yet our ability to understand and predict how forests are affected by environmental changes -- like air pollution, introduced pathogens and climate change -- is remarkably limited, in part because of the challenges of studying organisms that can live for centuries.
Many key questions can only be addressed by forest research that spans decades. In cooperation with the National Park Service, the USGS Western Ecological Research Center provides such a long-term research program as part of the USGS Western Mountain Initiative (WMI) climate change project.
USGS maintains a network of 30 long-term forest research plots in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks in California’s Sierra Nevada range. These plots provide the world’s longest ongoing annual-resolution record of forest dynamics, in which the birth, growth, health and deaths of some 30,000 individual trees have been tracked annually for up to 30 years.
Studies in the plots broadly focus on climate change impacts; effects of fire exclusion and reintroduction; causes and consequences of tree deaths; effects of an introduced forest pathogen; forest carbon dynamics; and other topics. The rich detail of this long-term data set has led to landmark discoveries, including an apparent temperature-induced increase in tree deaths across the western U.S., and the revelation that tree birth and death rates follow global patterns of forest productivity — a remarkable finding with implications for our understanding of the global carbon cycle.
As climate and forest resource issues continue to influence our changing world, resource agencies will continue to benefit from USGS long-term forest research.
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