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Some Trees More Adaptable To Climate Change, Research Shows

  • tyler roman and richard phillips

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    Photo: Gretchen Frazee/WFIU News

    Tyler Roman and Richard Phillips talk in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. Roman uses the lift to reach to the tops of trees where he can test the leaves.

  • tower

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    Photo: Gretchen Frazee/WFIU News

    A tower in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest is used to test atmospheric conditions. There are more than a hundred similar towers in forests around the U.S.

  • carbon analyzer

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    Photo: Gretchen Frazee/WFIU News

    Tyler Roman demonstrates how a carbon analyzer takes measurements from a leaf in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest.

Indiana University researchers have found some tree species can handle the rising temperatures linked to climate change better than others, and that could affect the composition of Indiana’s forests.

Measuring Carbon Dioxide

On a clear, spring day, Tyler Roman maneuvers a construction lift into the Morgan Monroe State Forest. He goes up 20, 40, 60 feet into the tree canopy, which gives him a vantage point to see several of the species that inhabit the forest, including sugar maples, tulip poplars and white oaks.

Once he is up near the top of the forest, Roman slowly turns the lift so he can reach a leaf on a nearby tree. He then clamps a machine onto a leaf so the leaf is pressed between two flat metal pieces.

“We just go ahead and clamp it onto a leaf, just like that. Then it takes gas samples and from there and runs it to the gas analyzer and you have to wait a couple minutes to stabilize and then you can get an estimate of the rate of photosynthesis,” he explains as he demonstrates how the machine works.

Roman is measuring how much carbon dioxide the tree is taking in as part of a much larger project aimed at understanding how the forest is and will react to climate change.

This will help researchers determine how trees  are being  impacted by the increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Back on the ground, Indiana University researcher Kim Novick stands at the base of a 150 foot tower. Several devices, attached to the metal tower at varying heights, collect data from the atmosphere. Next to it is a shed that houses a loud pump.

“This pump, what it’s doing is it’s drawing carbon dioxide from a number of inlet locations on the tower into this shed where we have a number of gas analyzers that measure the concentration of carbon dioxide,” Novick says. “They actually do it very quickly about five or 10 times per second.”

A Worsening Cycle

While there is still much work to be done such as rechecking measurements and models and testing trees in different weather conditions, what the researchers have already found could have a big impact on what the forest will look like in 50 years.

Research showed that during last year’s drought, trees in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest took in less carbon dioxide.

“If we see a similar effect in future drought events, then what we have is actually a positive feedback to climate change,” Novick says. “So some climate change process, specifically increased frequency or severity of drought, can lead to an effect in the forest, which is reduced carbon assimilation or a less amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere. And this effect would tend to accelerate climate change even faster moving forward.”

In other words, it is like an ever worsening cycle. Climate change leads to more droughts, which causes trees to take in less carbon dioxide and that leads to more severe climate change.

Trees’ Response To Climate Change

Still, not all trees react the same. Another researcher on the project Richard Phillips says there are some trees that handle climate change better than others.

“Oaks and hickories in general behave similarly in that in response to the drought, they seemed to be able to photosynthesize like nothing really was happening,” he says. “They are well adapted for dry conditions, and they didn’t have a very strong negative response to the drought. On the other hand, several species did show a very strong response and those species were such as sugar maple, tulip poplar and sassafras.”

But if some trees die off, that does not necessarily mean the forests will be filled with more oak trees.

“It turns out that due to land management and due to factors like the fact that we no longer burn our forest is that we don’t have a lot of regeneration of these oak trees that are going to come into the next generation of the forest,” Phillips says.

So if the forest is made up of drought-susceptible trees, they will either die or just take up less carbon dioxide, which, going back to Novick’s point, accelerates climate change.

Oak Regeneration Efforts

About three miles away from the research site, Department of Natural Resources State Forester John Seifert stands next to several acres full of bushes and saplings.

The area was clear cut a few years ago, and the state has been using the land as a place to experiment with oak regeneration.

“Obviously we’re doing it natural by just cutting and letting it nature take it’s course,” Seifert says. “In 10 or 15 years, we can come in and do some selective thinning by saying these are our crop trees, these are the trees we want to have and we kind of weed the garden.”

The DNR is also planting trees and conducting some controlled burns to replicate natural clearing. But, Seifert says, everything is still experimental.

The DNR has to figure out if it would be feasible to do oak regeneration on a large scale given how expensive it can be.

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