skip to main content

Title: Seeing the Disturbed Forest for the Trees: Remote Sensing Is Underutilized to Quantify Critical Zone Response to Unprecedented Disturbance

Understanding the severity and extent of near surface critical zone (CZ) disturbances and their ecosystem response is a pressing concern in the face of increasing human and natural disturbances. Predicting disturbance severity and recovery in a changing climate requires comprehensive understanding of ecosystem feedbacks among vegetation and the surrounding environment, including climate, hydrology, geomorphology, and biogeochemistry. Field surveys and satellite remote sensing have limited ability to effectively capture the spatial and temporal variability of disturbance and CZ properties. Technological advances in remote sensing using new sensors and new platforms have improved observations of changes in vegetation canopy structure and productivity; however, integrating measures of forest disturbance from various sensing platforms is complex. By connecting the potential for remote sensing technologies to observe different CZ disturbance vectors, we show that lower severity disturbance and slower vegetation recovery are more difficult to quantify. Case studies in montane forests from the western United States highlight new opportunities, including evaluating post‐disturbance forest recovery at multiple scales, shedding light on understory vegetation regrowth, detecting specific physiological responses, and refining ecohydrological modeling. Learning from regional CZ disturbance case studies, we propose future directions to synthesize fragmented findings with (a) new data analysis using new or existing sensors, (b) data fusion across multiple sensors and platforms, (c) increasing the value of ground‐based observations, (d) disturbance modeling, and (e) synthesis to improve understanding of disturbance.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.1029
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Earth's Future
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Tropical ecosystems are undergoing unprecedented rates of degradation from deforestation, fire, and drought disturbances. The collective effects of these disturbances threaten to shift large portions of tropical ecosystems such as Amazon forests into savanna‐like structure via tree loss, functional changes, and the emergence of fire (savannization). Changes from forest states to a more open savanna‐like structure can affect local microclimates, surface energy fluxes, and biosphere–atmosphere interactions. A predominant type of ecosystem state change is the loss of tree cover and structural complexity in disturbed forest. Although important advances have been made contrasting energy fluxes between historically distinct old‐growth forest and savanna systems, the emergence of secondary forests and savanna‐like ecosystems necessitates a reframing to consider gradients of tree structure that span forest to savanna‐like states at multiple scales. In this Innovative Viewpoint, we draw from the literature on forest–grassland continua to develop a framework to assess the consequences of tropical forest degradation on surface energy fluxes and canopy structure. We illustrate this framework for forest sites with contrasting canopy structure that ranges from simple, open, and savanna‐like to complex and closed, representative of tropical wet forest, within two climatically distinct regions in the Amazon. Using a recently developed rapid field assessment approach, we quantify differences in cover, leaf area vertical profiles, surface roughness, albedo, and energy balance partitioning between adjacent sites and compare canopy structure with adjacent old‐growth forest; more structurally simple forests displayed lower net radiation. To address forest–atmosphere feedback, we also consider the effects of canopy structure change on susceptibility to additional future disturbance. We illustrate a converse transition—recovery in structure following disturbance—measuring forest canopy structure 10 yr after the imposition of a 5‐yr drought in the ground‐breaking Seca Floresta experiment. Our approach strategically enables rapid characterization of surface properties relevant to vegetation models following degradation, and advances links between surface properties and canopy structure variables, increasingly available from remote sensing. Concluding, we hypothesize that understanding surface energy balance and microclimate change across degraded tropical forest states not only reveals critical atmospheric forcing, but also critical local‐scale feedbacks from forest sensitivity to additional climate‐linked disturbance.

    more » « less
  2. Landslides are a central component of tropical montane forest disturbance regimes, including in the tropical Andes biodiversity hotspot, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Technological developments in remote sensing have made landscape-scale landslide studies possible, unlocking new avenues for understanding montane biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the future effects of climate change. Here, we outline three axes of inquiry for future landslide ecology research in Andean tropical montane forest. We focus exclusively on the Andes due to the vast floral diversity and high endemicity of the tropical Andes biodiversity hotspot, and its importance for global biodiversity and regional ecosystem service provisioning; the broad elevational, latitudinal, and topographic gradients across which landslide dynamics play out; and the existence of long-term plot networks that provide the necessary baseline data on mature forest structure, composition, and functioning to contextualize disturbance impacts. The three lines of study we outline, which draw heavily on remote sensing data and techniques, will deepen scientific understanding of tropical montane forest biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and the potential impacts of climate change on both. They are: (1) tracking landslide biodiversity dynamics across time and space with high spatial and temporal resolution satellite and unoccupied aerial vehicle imagery; (2) assessing the ecological influence of landslides through the lens of plant functional diversity with imaging spectroscopy; and (3) understanding current and predicting future landslide regimes at scale by building a living landslide inventory spanning the tropical Andes. The research findings from these three axes of inquiry will shed light on the role of landslides and the process of forest recovery from them in both the Andes and worldwide.

    more » « less
  3. Across the globe, the forest carbon sink is increasingly vulnerable to an expanding array of low- to moderate-severity disturbances. However, some forest ecosystems exhibit functional resistance (i.e., the capacity of ecosystems to continue functioning as usual) following disturbances such as extreme weather events and insect or fungal pathogen outbreaks. Unlike severe disturbances (e.g., stand-replacing wildfires), moderate severity disturbances do not always result in near-term declines in forest production because of the potential for compensatory growth, including enhanced subcanopy production. Community-wide shifts in subcanopy plant functional traits, prompted by disturbance-driven environmental change, may play a key mechanistic role in resisting declines in net primary production (NPP) up to thresholds of canopy loss. However, the temporal dynamics of these shifts, as well as the upper limits of disturbance for which subcanopy production can compensate, remain poorly characterized. In this study, we leverage a 4-year dataset from an experimental forest disturbance in northern Michigan to assess subcanopy community trait shifts as well as their utility in predicting ecosystem NPP resistance across a wide range of implemented disturbance severities. Through mechanical girdling of stems, we achieved a gradient of severity from 0% (i.e., control) to 45, 65, and 85% targeted gross canopy defoliation, replicated across four landscape ecosystems broadly representative of the Upper Great Lakes ecoregion. We found that three of four examined subcanopy community weighted mean (CWM) traits including leaf photosynthetic rate ( p = 0.04), stomatal conductance ( p = 0.07), and the red edge normalized difference vegetation index ( p < 0.0001) shifted rapidly following disturbance but before widespread changes in subcanopy light environment triggered by canopy tree mortality. Surprisingly, stimulated subcanopy production fully compensated for upper canopy losses across our gradient of experimental severities, achieving complete resistance (i.e., no significant interannual differences from control) of whole ecosystem NPP even in the 85% disturbance treatment. Additionally, we identified a probable mechanistic switch from nutrient-driven to light-driven trait shifts as disturbance progressed. Our findings suggest that remotely sensed traits such as the red edge normalized difference vegetation index (reNDVI) could be particularly sensitive and robust predictors of production response to disturbance, even across compositionally diverse forests. The potential of leaf spectral indices to predict post-disturbance functional resistance is promising given the capabilities of airborne to satellite remote sensing. We conclude that dynamic functional trait shifts following disturbance can be used to predict production response across a wide range of disturbance severities. 
    more » « less
  4. BACKGROUND The availability of nitrogen (N) to plants and microbes has a major influence on the structure and function of ecosystems. Because N is an essential component of plant proteins, low N availability constrains the growth of plants and herbivores. To increase N availability, humans apply large amounts of fertilizer to agricultural systems. Losses from these systems, combined with atmospheric deposition of fossil fuel combustion products, introduce copious quantities of reactive N into ecosystems. The negative consequences of these anthropogenic N inputs—such as ecosystem eutrophication and reductions in terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity—are well documented. Yet although N availability is increasing in many locations, reactive N inputs are not evenly distributed globally. Furthermore, experiments and theory also suggest that global change factors such as elevated atmospheric CO 2 , rising temperatures, and altered precipitation and disturbance regimes can reduce the availability of N to plants and microbes in many terrestrial ecosystems. This can occur through increases in biotic demand for N or reductions in its supply to organisms. Reductions in N availability can be observed via several metrics, including lowered nitrogen concentrations ([N]) and isotope ratios (δ 15 N) in plant tissue, reduced rates of N mineralization, and reduced terrestrial N export to aquatic systems. However, a comprehensive synthesis of N availability metrics, outside of experimental settings and capable of revealing large-scale trends, has not yet been carried out. ADVANCES A growing body of observations confirms that N availability is declining in many nonagricultural ecosystems worldwide. Studies have demonstrated declining wood δ 15 N in forests across the continental US, declining foliar [N] in European forests, declining foliar [N] and δ 15 N in North American grasslands, and declining [N] in pollen from the US and southern Canada. This evidence is consistent with observed global-scale declines in foliar δ 15 N and [N] since 1980. Long-term monitoring of soil-based N availability indicators in unmanipulated systems is rare. However, forest studies in the northeast US have demonstrated decades-long decreases in soil N cycling and N exports to air and water, even in the face of elevated atmospheric N deposition. Collectively, these studies suggest a sustained decline in N availability across a range of terrestrial ecosystems, dating at least as far back as the early 20th century. Elevated atmospheric CO 2 levels are likely a main driver of declines in N availability. Terrestrial plants are now uniformly exposed to ~50% more of this essential resource than they were just 150 years ago, and experimentally exposing plants to elevated CO 2 often reduces foliar [N] as well as plant-available soil N. In addition, globally-rising temperatures may raise soil N supply in some systems but may also increase N losses and lead to lower foliar [N]. Changes in other ecosystem drivers—such as local climate patterns, N deposition rates, and disturbance regimes—individually affect smaller areas but may have important cumulative effects on global N availability. OUTLOOK Given the importance of N to ecosystem functioning, a decline in available N is likely to have far-reaching consequences. Reduced N availability likely constrains the response of plants to elevated CO 2 and the ability of ecosystems to sequester carbon. Because herbivore growth and reproduction scale with protein intake, declining foliar [N] may be contributing to widely reported declines in insect populations and may be negatively affecting the growth of grazing livestock and herbivorous wild mammals. Spatial and temporal patterns in N availability are not yet fully understood, particularly outside of Europe and North America. Developments in remote sensing, accompanied by additional historical reconstructions of N availability from tree rings, herbarium specimens, and sediments, will show how N availability trajectories vary among ecosystems. Such assessment and monitoring efforts need to be complemented by further experimental and theoretical investigations into the causes of declining N availability, its implications for global carbon sequestration, and how its effects propagate through food webs. Responses will need to involve reducing N demand via lowering atmospheric CO 2 concentrations, and/or increasing N supply. Successfully mitigating and adapting to declining N availability will require a broader understanding that this phenomenon is occurring alongside the more widely recognized issue of anthropogenic eutrophication. Intercalibration of isotopic records from leaves, tree rings, and lake sediments suggests that N availability in many terrestrial ecosystems has steadily declined since the beginning of the industrial era. Reductions in N availability may affect many aspects of ecosystem functioning, including carbon sequestration and herbivore nutrition. Shaded areas indicate 80% prediction intervals; marker size is proportional to the number of measurements in each annual mean. Isotope data: (tree ring) K. K. McLauchlan et al. , Sci. Rep. 7 , 7856 (2017); (lake sediment) G. W. Holtgrieve et al. , Science 334 , 1545–1548 (2011); (foliar) J. M. Craine et al. , Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2 , 1735–1744 (2018) 
    more » « less
  5. Contemporary climate change in Alaska has resulted in amplified rates of press and pulse disturbances that drive ecosystem change with significant consequences for socio‐environmental systems. Despite the vulnerability of Arctic and boreal landscapes to change, little has been done to characterize landscape change and associated drivers across northern high‐latitude ecosystems. Here we characterize the historical sensitivity of Alaska's ecosystems to environmental change and anthropogenic disturbances using expert knowledge, remote sensing data, and spatiotemporal analyses and modeling. Time‐series analysis of moderate—and high‐resolution imagery was used to characterize land‐ and water‐surface dynamics across Alaska. Some 430,000 interpretations of ecological and geomorphological change were made using historical air photos and satellite imagery, and corroborate land‐surface greening, browning, and wetness/moisture trend parameters derived from peak‐growing season Landsat imagery acquired from 1984 to 2015. The time series of change metrics, together with climatic data and maps of landscape characteristics, were incorporated into a modeling framework for mapping and understanding of drivers of change throughout Alaska. According to our analysis, approximately 13% (~174,000 ± 8700 km2) of Alaska has experienced directional change in the last 32 years (±95% confidence intervals). At the ecoregions level, substantial increases in remotely sensed vegetation productivity were most pronounced in western and northern foothills of Alaska, which is explained by vegetation growth associated with increasing air temperatures. Significant browning trends were largely the result of recent wildfires in interior Alaska, but browning trends are also driven by increases in evaporative demand and surface‐water gains that have predominately occurred over warming permafrost landscapes. Increased rates of photosynthetic activity are associated with stabilization and recovery processes following wildfire, timber harvesting, insect damage, thermokarst, glacial retreat, and lake infilling and drainage events. Our results fill a critical gap in the understanding of historical and potential future trajectories of change in northern high‐latitude regions. 
    more » « less