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Using California's Hotter Drought as a Preview of the Future: The Leaf to Landscape Forest Vulnerability Project

Released: 2016
Stephenson, NL, A Ambrose, G Asner, W Baxter, A Das, T Dawson, E Francis, R Martin, K Nydick. 2016. Using California's Hotter Drought as a Preview of the Future: The Leaf to Landscape Forest Vulnerability Project. 2016 Mountain Climate Conference, 17-21 October 2016, Leavenworth, WA.

“Hotter droughts” (otherwise normal droughts whose effects on ecosystems are exacerbated by higher temperatures) are an emerging climate change threat to forests, with some of their earliest and strongest manifestations in the American West.  Managers can increase forest resistance to hotter droughts, such as by thinning forests to reduce competition for water among the remaining trees.  However, the task is so vast that managers may need to perform triage, deciding where on the landscape their limited funds will be best applied; that is, they need forest vulnerability maps to help them strategically target treatments.  But at the spatial and temporal scales that matter most to trees and forest managers, our ability to use commonly-available data sources to produce spatially-explicit maps of forest vulnerability is, at best, quite poor.  We have thus launched the collaborative “Leaf to Landscape” project, which applies a fundamentally different approach to mapping forest vulnerability to hotter droughts.  By using California’s 2012-2015 hotter drought as a preview of the future, we let the trees themselves provide a direct empirical basis for vulnerability maps and for improving our basic mechanistic understanding of the effects of hotter droughts on forests.  Leaf to Landscape thus has three main data-collection components, designed to be integrated across scales – from tree leaves to entire forested landscapes:  (1) tree physiology and chemistry (directly measured by climbing hundreds of trees of the Sierra’s 10 dominant tree species), which is strategically co-located with (2) population monitoring (ground surveys of foliage dieback and tree death in permanent forest plots), thus providing calibration and validation for (3) high-resolution LiDAR + hyperspectral remote imagery.  The remote imagery will allow us to scale up to determine spatial patterns of drought effects, and their correlates.  Early results already provide some unexpected insights.
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