New Class on Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests

Brendan Buckley discusses his course, Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests, which is offered this spring.

Guest Blogger
February 04, 2019
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MS in Sustainability Science Professor Brendan Buckley giving a lecture in Myanmar

Brendan Buckley, a Lamont Research Professor and pioneer in tropical dendroclimatology, is teaching the class ‘Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests’ this spring as part of the Master of Science in Sustainability Science program at Columbia. Amanda Askew, a recent graduate of the MS in Sustainability Management program, spoke with Buckley about his new course.

What is the importance of predicting the effects of climate change on global forests to the field of sustainability?

Forests are often referred to as the lungs of the Earth, because it is the forests of our planet that generate the life sustaining oxygen that we need for survival, while at the same time sequestering huge amounts of carbon. Of course, forest ecosystems are highly complex and there can be significant differences between forests of the tropics, the temperate zones and the high latitudes with regard to their response to, and interaction with, regional climate. For example, the tropical forests have the greatest potential for mitigating the effects of global warming due to their increased capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as well as high rates of evapotranspiration throughout the year. Removal of tropical rainforest has a very large effect on global climate, resulting in positive feedbacks to temperature and negative feedbacks to precipitation. However, reforestation of tropical habitats has been shown to be highly effective at mitigating the effects of global warming.

Boreal (high-latitude) forests, on the other hand, form hugely important ecosystems that are particularly prone to the effects of our planet’s warming. One surprising aspect of boreal forests is that their removal can result in cooling due to an increase in the albedo, as long as there is still snow cover. The temperate forests have been some of the most heavily altered forests on Earth, as much of their extent has been replaced by agricultural fields with much higher albedo and higher evapotranspiration rates.

Current state of the art climate models are making huge strides in understanding and incorporating Earth’s biosphere (i.e., vegetation) into general circulation models, so a better understanding of how forests operate has become a high priority. Aside from a plethora of human activities that impact all forests (i.e., land use changes that can obliterate or radically alter the make up of natural species assemblages), changes in the mean state of climate are expected to impact forests in the future and the onus is on us to figure out the nature of those changes so that we may adapt accordingly. The inclusion of this class into the curriculum for the Masters of Sustainability Science program offers an exciting opportunity to explore what the current state of our understanding is, and how we might utilize this information in future mitigation practices.

Are there any new trends in predicting the effects of climate change on global forests?

There are many exciting new methods being employed to remotely sense forests at very large scales in order to better understand the feedbacks between ecosystems and climate. Lidar, for example, is a relatively new technique that allows for measurements of various aspects of entire forests that weren’t possible just a couple of decades ago. There is still the need for “boots on the ground” measurements as a sort of quality control check on the new technologies, but these new trends in data collection are revolutionary in many regards.

What is your academic and professional background and how you came to the field?

The origins of my interest in forest-related science are the result of my love of the outdoors. I hiked most of the Appalachian Trail between my junior and senior years of high school in 1975, and that hooked me on wilderness travel. The next year I hiked the John Muir Trail, followed by a cross-country trek in Southeast Alaska’s John Mountains near Ketchikan in 1977, and the next year a canoe trip down the Yukon River. In 1980, my brother and I took things up a notch by getting ourselves flown to northern Labrador where we were dropped off in Ryan’s Bay and trekked overland to Hebron Fjord over the next 45 days. We would return to Labrador three more times in the early 1980s before I found myself pursuing a masters degree in physical geography at Arizona State University. While figuring out what I would do for my thesis, I discovered dendrochronology. Since I loved being in the mountains, I gravitated toward relict forests in the “sky islands” of the southwest, where boreal species found themselves stranded on the mountaintops by the Holocene warming, with nowhere left to run. I have since been drawn to old trees growing at the range limits for their species. The current warming trends, combined with a plethora of other human-related pressures, are already altering the global forests in profound ways. This class will explore this subject in detail.

What do you believe sustainability professionals should know about Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Global Forests?

I am trying to bring together the climate modeling and forest ecology fields in unique ways that takes into account the way entire forest communities are likely to respond to a rapidly warming and often drying world. The interactions are highly complex and there is much that the models can’t see at present. I think it is very important for sustainability professionals to appreciate the breadth of the research needs in this field, and how they might equip themselves to participate in the exciting and crucial work to follow.

What work or research are you involved in now, related to the class?

I have been working with colleagues in Columbia’s E3B Department to explore the ecophysiological basis behind the response to climate that we use in dendroclimatic studies. Most of my research these days involves the rare and often endemic conifers of Southeast Asia, but I also have an ongoing project on the northernmost forests of Labrador.

Please feel free to add anything that you find important about your course, and that would get students interested in enrolling

This is a brand new course, being taught by me for the first time. As a result there are bound to be some bumps in the road as the students and I figure out the best way forward, but there are several exciting directions we can follow. What I am trying in this first round, for the final project, is to have students design a research idea and develop an NSF-style proposal based on some aspect of what they learn in the class. There is wide latitude given to what kinds of research might best fit each student, so the key point is to get them thinking about this field in a way that might expand their opportunities for employment in the future based on their interests. Learning how to concisely and coherently communicate their ideas in writing and as an oral presentation are fundamental parts of the modern workforce. The proposals are due at the end of class, and each student will present his or her proposal idea in a conference-like 15-minute oral presentation to the class. To bring some real world flavor to the course, we also have a one day field excursion planned where we will make actual measurements in a Hudson Valley forest location where the effects of climate change are having an impact.

(Guest blogger Amanda Askew is a candidate for the MS in Sustainability Management degree)

The M.S. in Sustainability Science, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to provide technical solutions to  sustainability challenges. Visit the program’s website to learn more.