Tree Torture Labs

Two visually striking experiments are attempting to find out how trees will respond to climate change:  Sevilleta LTER, and Aspen FACE at Michigan Technological University. These science experiments invoke several recent landscape architecture projects, but are purely functional.

Sevilleta LTER

But we have to kill the trees to understand how they die. Not a lot of them, just a few.”  “We need to understand the mechanistic side if we’re going to model the effects of climate on a large scale, we need to understand why and where trees die. When we can do that accurately, we’ll have a shot at knowing the broader effects.– Nate McDowell

The experiments at Sevilleta focus on Pinon-Juniper woodlands of New Mexico and are subject to several experiments by researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science’s Program for Ecosystem Research).

To observe the impact of higher temperatures, 18 trees are wrapped in 15′ tall plastic cylinders with heaters that keeps the temperature about 7 degrees warmer than ambient conditions to simulate the predicted climate of 2100.

more images at

There are other experiments to see the impact of changing precipitation patterns:

[PJREx] research site at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, an NSF-funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, consists of 12 large plots (40 m x 40 m) in the Los Pinos mountains. Three plots are assigned to each of the four treatments (untreated control, rainfall exclusion, rainout control, and water addition). Rainfall exclusion plots are equipped with acrylic channels covering 50% of the soil surface to exclude a similar amount of rainfall. Rainout control plots receive channels that do not divert water, allowing us to distinguish the effect of the channels on light and temperature from the effect of altered water availability in the rainfall exclusion plots. Water addition plots precipitation is supplemented using an overhead rainfall simulator. All plots are equipped with automated measurements of soil moisture and plant water uptake.

Pinyon-Juniper Rainfall Experiment (PJREx) – Rainfall manipulation devices

Aspen FACE

Aspen FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) Experiment at Michigan Tech University funded by $1.1 million from the US Forest Service Institute for Applied Ecosystem Studies (FS IAES) that is simulating the carbon dioxide concentrations expected 50 years from now and ozone concentrations typical of a location closer to larger cities —80 to 100 parts per billion.

“Forests grow differently when they are exposed to carbon dioxide, ozone and other pollutants,”  Andrew Burton, lead investigator from Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

“Aspen forests play an incredibly important role in our lives,” Mark Kubiske ( USFS Institute for Applied Ecosystem Studies’ lead investigator). “They are extremely important for paper production and as a food source and cover for wildlife. Aspen ecosystems account for about half of the upland hardwood forests throughout the lake states, and they occur all across the US and Canada. We have to be able to predict what will happen to existing forests under global change conditions.” [link to article]

Each ring consists of a series of vertical ventpipes which disperse carbon dioxide, ozone or normal air into the center of the ring. This computer controlled system uses signal feedback technology to adjust gas release each second in order to maintain a stable, elevated concentration of carbon dioxide and/or ozone throughout the experimental plot. Because there is no confinement, there is no significant change in the natural, ambient environment other than elevating these trace gas concentrations.

Why this interests me enough to write a post is that much of the current research on the impact of climate change is set outside of urban areas.

Establishing the urban equivalent of these experimental forests is part an emerging field of research that I’m looking into at Cal Poly. Stay tuned for news about a possible seed grant (or not) to establish a sensor network to gather baseline urban landscape performance data. The big fish is getting funding for a large-scale deployment of the sensor network, perhaps from the NSF which created the Urban Long-Term Research Area program in 2009, and has now funded 21 projects (see NYTimes article).


NPR ‘Torture Lab’ Kills Trees To Learn How To Save Them’  &  Scientific American ‘experiments-suggest-grassland-may-replace-forest-in-us-southwest’

[update 12/31] NYT’s now has an article about the experiments at Los Alamos.

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