From The University at Buffalo-SUNY (US): “What’s missing from forest mortality projections? A look underground”

SUNY Buffalo

From The University at Buffalo-SUNY (US)

October 22, 2021

A cottonwood forest adjacent to the Oldman River in Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a recent study, researchers present new techniques for modeling the impact of climate change on riparian forests of this kind, focusing on a nearby region of this forest. Photo: Lawrence B. Flanagan.

You can’t see it happening. But what goes on below ground in a forest is very important in determining its fate.

In a new study, scientists conclude that the sideways flow of water through soil can have an important impact on how riparian forests respond to climate change. Models used to predict the future plight of forests typically don’t account for this factor — but they should, researchers say.

“There hasn’t been a lot of attention on groundwater and how the movement of water from one location to another below ground can impact plants’ survival prospects, making some locations drier, and others wetter,” says lead author Xiaonan Tai, assistant professor of biological sciences at The New Jersey Institute of Technology(US). “Groundwater is a hidden water source for ecosystems that people have neglected over the years. It is very hard to observe and quantify, just because we can’t see it. The contribution of our new research is to begin characterizing lateral groundwater processes and quantifying how much of a role they can have in terms of influencing the future of forests.”

The study was published in July in Environmental Research Letters, building on research themes that Tai explored as a PhD student in geography at UB, where she completed her doctoral degree in 2018.

The new paper focuses on incorporating information about subsurface hydrology into computational models that predict the future fates of forests.

“Our research will fundamentally change the way the Earth systems modeling community will think about the impacts of future climate change droughts on forests,” says Scott Mackay, UB professor and chair of geography and professor of environment and sustainability. “In essence, the various vegetation models out there today assume the world is flat. Our model changes the story by allowing for water to be moved laterally below the surface, while simultaneously modeling the physiological responses of trees on the landscape.”

In addition to Tai and Mackay, authors of the new study include Martin D. Venturas at The Technical University of Madrid [Universidad Politécnica de Madrid] (ES); Paul D. Brooks at The University of Utah (US); and Lawrence B. Flanagan at The University of Lethbridge (CA). The research was funded by The National Science Foundation (US).

A cottonwood forest adjacent to the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada. Visible in the photo is an eddy covariance flux tower — a type of scientific installation that was used in the recent study that presents new techniques for modeling the impact of climate change on riparian forests of this kind. Photo: Laurens J. Philipsen.

The paper models potential futures for a riparian cottonwood forest in Alberta, Canada, focusing on a 20-year period at the end of the 21st century. Riparian forests are common ecosystems that are located next to a body of water like a stream or pond.

Conventional wisdom suggests that as carbon dioxide levels in forests increase, tiny pores on leaves — called stomata — will not need to open as wide to absorb the carbon dioxide that plants need for photosynthesis. This, in turn, will lead to a reduction in water loss, which occurs through stomata.

But the new study suggests that the amount of water saved for future use may not be as great as anticipated. “Once you introduce subsurface lateral water flow, there is still extra saved water, but that saved water won’t all stay local,” Tai says. “Some of it will move away, and once it’s gone, plants won’t be able to use it in future droughts.”

In addition, models that fail to consider horizontal water flow may overestimate other mortality risks, Mackay says.

“Within the soil, water can move in all directions from areas of high water content to areas of low water content,” he says. “This is pronounced in mountainous landscapes because water moves from high to low elevation, and in close proximity to water bodies, such as one finds in river floodplains.

“By moving the water around horizontally, locations that would otherwise be very dry when the rain stops are made wetter, while areas that are typically wet can afford to give up some water without harming the plants.”

The big-picture message of the research? If scientists and policymakers want to understand how riparian forests will fare in a warming world, they’ll need to think more about hydrology and the hard-to-see processes that occur beneath the forest floor.

See the full article here .


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The State University of New York at Buffalo (US) is a public research university with campuses in Buffalo and Amherst, New York, United States. The university was founded in 1846 as a private medical college and merged with the State University of New York system in 1962. It is one of four university centers in the system, in addition to The University at Albany-SUNY (US), The University at Binghampton-SUNY (US), and The University at Stony Brook-SUNY (US) . As of fall 2020, the university enrolls 32,347 students in 13 colleges, making it the largest public university in the state of New York.

Since its founding by a group which included future United States President Millard Fillmore, the university has evolved from a small medical school to a large research university. Today, in addition to the College of Arts and Sciences, the university houses the largest state-operated medical school, dental school, education school, business school, engineering school, and pharmacy school, and is also home to SUNY’s only law school. The University at Binghampton has the largest enrollment, largest endowment, and most research funding among the universities in the SUNY system. The university offers bachelor’s degrees in over 100 areas of study, as well as 205 master’s degrees, 84 doctoral degrees, and 10 professional degrees. The University at Buffalo and The University of Virginia (US) are the only colleges founded by United States Presidents.

The University at Buffalo is classified as an R1 University, meaning that it engages in a very high level of research activity. In 1989, UB was elected to The Association of American Universities (US), a selective group of major research universities in North America. University at Buffalo’s alumni and faculty have included five Nobel laureates, five Pulitzer Prize winners, one head of government, two astronauts, three billionaires, one Academy Award winner, one Emmy Award winner, and Fulbright Scholars.

The University at Buffalo intercollegiate athletic teams are the Bulls. They compete in Division I of the NCAA, and are members of the Mid-American Conference.

The University at Buffalo is organized into 13 academic schools and colleges.

The School of Architecture and Planning is the only combined architecture and urban planning school in the State University of New York system, offers the only accredited professional master’s degree in architecture, and is one of two SUNY schools that offer an accredited professional master’s degree in urban planning. In addition, the Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning also awards the original undergraduate four year pre-professional degrees in architecture and environmental design in the SUNY system. Other degree programs offered by the Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning include a research-oriented Master of Science in architecture with specializations in historic preservation/urban design, inclusive design, and computing and media technologies; a PhD in urban and regional planning; and, an advanced graduate certificate in historic preservation.
The College of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1915 and is the largest and most comprehensive academic unit at University at Buffalo with 29 degree-granting departments, 16 academic programs, and 23 centers and institutes across the humanities, arts, and sciences.
The School of Dental Medicine was founded in 1892 and offers accredited programs in DDS, oral surgery, and other oral sciences.
The Graduate School of Education was founded in 1931 and is one of the largest graduate schools at University at Buffalo. The school has four academic departments: counseling and educational psychology, educational leadership and policy, learning and instruction, and library and information science. In academic year 2008–2009, the Graduate School of Education awarded 472 master’s degrees and 52 doctoral degrees.
The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was founded in 1946 and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in six departments. It is the largest public school of engineering in the state of New York. University at Buffalo is the only public school in New York State to offer a degree in Aerospace Engineering
The School of Law was founded in 1887 and is the only law school in the SUNY system. The school awarded 265 JD degrees in the 2009–2010 academic year.
The School of Management was founded in 1923 and offers AACSB-accredited undergraduate, MBA, and doctoral degrees.
The School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is the founding faculty of the University at Buffalo and began in 1846. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in the biomedical and biotechnical sciences as well as an MD program and residencies.
The School of Nursing was founded in 1936 and offers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in nursing practice and patient care.
The School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences was founded in 1886, making it the second-oldest faculty at University at Buffalo and one of only two pharmacy schools in the SUNY system.
The School of Public Health and Health Professions was founded in 2003 from the merger of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Health Related Professions. The school offers a bachelor’s degree in exercise science as well as professional, master’s and PhD degrees.
The School of Social Work offers graduate MSW and doctoral degrees in social work.
The Roswell Park Graduate Division is an affiliated academic unit within the Graduate School of UB, in partnership with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, an independent NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Roswell Park Graduate Division offers five PhD programs and two MS programs in basic and translational biomedical research related to cancer. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center was founded in 1898 by Dr. Roswell Park and was the world’s first cancer research institute.

The University at Buffalo houses two New York State Centers of Excellence (out of the total 11): Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (CBLS) and Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics (CMI). Emphasis has been placed on developing a community of research scientists centered around an economic initiative to promote Buffalo and create the Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics and Life Sciences as well as other advanced biomedical and engineering disciplines.

Total research expenditures for the fiscal year of 2017 were $401 million, ranking 59th nationally.

SUNY – The State University of New York (US) is a system of public colleges and universities in New York State. It is the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges, and community colleges in the United States, with a total enrollment of 424,051 students, plus 2,195,082 adult education students, spanning 64 campuses across the state. The SUNY system has some 7,660 degree and certificate programs overall and a $13.08 billion budget.

The SUNY system has four “university centers”: The University at Albany- SUNY (US) (1844), The University at Binghampton-(SUNY)(US) (1946), The University at Buffalo-SUNY (US) (1846), and The University at Stony Brook-SUNY (US) (1957). SUNY’s administrative offices are in Albany, the state’s capital, with satellite offices in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. With 25,000 acres of land, SUNY’s largest campus is The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (US), which neighbors the State University of New York Upstate Medical University – the largest employer in the SUNY system with over 10,959 employees. While the SUNY system doesn’t officially recognize a flagship university, the University at Buffalo and Stony Brook University are sometimes treated as unofficial flagships.

The State University of New York was established in 1948 by Governor Thomas E. Dewey, through legislative implementation of recommendations made by the Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University (1946–1948). The commission was chaired by Owen D. Young, who was at the time Chairman of General Electric. The system was greatly expanded during the administration of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who took a personal interest in design and construction of new SUNY facilities across the state.

Apart from units of the unrelated City University of New York (CUNY)(US), SUNY comprises all state-supported institutions of higher education.