New NSF grant will explore the dynamics of landslides, wind, and carbon in the dense forests of Alaska

A newly funded collaborative project between the University of Alaska Southeast and Portland State University is going to explore the role of landslides and wind disturbances in landscape carbon distribution.  Landslides move a lot of debris - most people think of them as primarily a movement of earth, but in some areas (forests) they move a ton of carbon, in the soil yes, but also in the trees they bring down.

Starrigaven landslide, photo Sitka Conservation Society

Starrigaven landslide, photo Sitka Conservation Society

The role of those debris in controlling how the landslide moves and travels is relatively unknown, and so Adam Booth, a geologist at PSU, is going to be building a modeling framework to incorporate woody debris into landslide mechanics.  Meanwhile, I will be leading an effort to explore the carbon implications of those movements and incorporate that into the model as well.  When completed, we will then model the entire landscape to understand what role these disturbances play (over long time spans) in the spatial distribution and movement of carbon in these world-class carbon storehouses.

Kramer landslide in Sitka, 2015.  It killed three people.  Photo KCAW.

Kramer landslide in Sitka, 2015.  It killed three people.  Photo KCAW.

There's more implications here than just carbon and forests.  Landslides kill people, and have recently, in southeast Alaska and around the world.  Many cities, in the US and abroad, are exposed to landslides. By being able to better predict their movement, travel distance, and route, as well as how the forest plays a role in stability or destructiveness, we will be better able to help municipalities plan for these natural events (only expected to get worse as climate change increases the frequency of intense rainfall events in many locations).

New publication on aspen seedling establishment explores the boundaries of spatial modeling

Work led by Nathan Gill was recently accepted for publication, focusing on how aspen seedling establishment in the southern Rockies - so often said to be rare or insignificant compared to sprouting - is really quite significant in some cases.  In the case of multiple, compound disturbance environments, perhaps its even more important, as the intense disturbances render all other forms of regeneration worthless.

Gill, other colleagues, and myself pooled data to put together a very large, spatially explicit dataset on aspen regeneration which we then compared to disturbance history.  Several methods for modeling the spatial distribution were tried as well, to give a sense of how and where aspen are recovering.  It really does appear that seed dispersal, not resprouting, is key to revegetation after fires.  This implies (though not explored directly) that post-fire weather and climate is similarly important, as aspen seeds require fairly mesic conditions to survive - so the story only gets more complex!

Gill N, Kulakowski D, Sangermano F, Buma B.    Populus tremuloides seedling establishment: An underexplored vector for forest type conversion after multiple disturbances.  Forest Ecology and Management.  In press.

GLORIA site install

Last week we established the first GLORIA site in the coastal mountain system of Alaska, and the first in the broader region as well.  GLORIA, short for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (, is a worldwide network of sites where research is conducted in identical fashions - effectively replicating a single study design around the world.  It's immensely powerful, because it means that by creating a GLORIA site, you immediately buy into a much larger effort, coordinating your work with hundreds of other researchers around the globe:  

Our sites were put in over the first week of July, with help from a variety of people and agencies, including the Juneau Icefield Research Project (, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, US Fish & Wildlife, the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, the US Forest Service, and others.  The sites span Blackerby Ridge in Juneau, and we had excellent weather installing the sites (though the hike down was a different story).

The sites will be revisited on a five year basis to monitor how plant communities are adapting to climate change.  We expect that warmer-condition plants will gradually move uphill over time, as has been observed in Europe and the lower 48; perhaps faster as rates of warming are exceptionally high in Alaska. By precisely documenting these effects, we can follow not only biodiversity, but also biogeochemical changes, the interactions between plants, and even the role of local human activity in these changes.

Various pictures from the upper site, a middle site, and camp.

National Geographic story on our Glacier Bay research

The story of Glacier Bay made it to National Geographic - the work of re-establishing the longest running plot network of its kind in the world is of pretty broad interest, and you can read their take on it here:

National Geographic sponsored the work, and I'm greatly indebted to them for their support, as well as Glenn Wright, Sarah Bisbing, and John Krapek, who were along on not only the field portion but intimately involved in the writing and publishing of the data as well.  The project is planned to continue this summer with an expansion of the plots, dating of the trees, and collections to better understand the representative nature of the 101 year record.  

Home sweet home for a portion of the trip, a small floathouse w/ two beds and floor space for another two.

Home sweet home for a portion of the trip, a small floathouse w/ two beds and floor space for another two.

Big fires mean big water increases (most of the time)

Sometimes when a forested watershed burns (partially) down, or blows over, water yield from that watershed increases.  That's potentially good - more water - and potentially bad - floods.  Other times yield decreases, or occurs earlier/later.

A publication of mine and Ben Livneh's (University of Colorado) is now appearing in Environmental Research Letters, where we explore how the context of a landscape (e.g., it's elevation, climate, topography, and composition) influence its water yield response to disturbances.  Larger disturbances almost always lead to more water yield from a forest, though there is some context on how major the increase is - some higher precipitation watersheds didn't see quite the proportional increase in water that other areas did, for example.  These results certainly lead to more questions - what about finer scale variation (e.g., just dry watersheds in the west?).  But they also enable a first stab at deciding what watersheds and water systems are sensitive to future disturbances, and which are likely pretty resistant to change, regardless of disturbance.  Good to know if you care about the water coming down the mountain in your neighborhood.

Buma B., Livneh B.  Key landscape and biotic indicators of watersheds sensitivity to forest disturbance. Environmental Research Letters.  In press.  

New publication - 100 years of succession!

The work in Glacier Bay, Alaska, re-discovering and measuring the 1916 William Cooper plots, has been accepted for publication in Ecology.  This is an important dataset, 100 years of fairly regular measurements of vegetation composition and characteristics.  It is truly unique, not only due to its age, but because of its ability to shed light on primary succession and chronosequences writ large, which make a large assumption that space can be substituted for time.

The 100 year record in Glacier Bay suggests that those assumptions are not necessarily valid, even in a near ideal condition - low species diversity, relatively strong abiotic filters (read: harsh weather), and consistent year to year climate.  Contingency, primarily driven by the founder/first come first served effect, seems to dominate species composition.  However, metrics of diversity, which ignore specific species in favor of overall community characteristics, were better behaved - species evenness, for example, decreased in a fairly linear pattern across time regardless of plot location.  

There are more results to come out, including a more detailed soil assessment and inclusion of new data from the 1960s to 1980's to fill in a hole in the dataset currently, but these initial results will be available from Ecology soon.

Mt Abdallah, situated above some of the 1916 era plots.

Mt Abdallah, situated above some of the 1916 era plots.

Position opening - postdoc in regional forest carbon estimation

The Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center at the University of Alaska Southeast seeks a postdoctoral scholar to take the lead in creating and publishing terrestrial carbon stock assessments along the North Pacific coast, one of the most carbon-dense forested systems in the world, with a specific focus on linking model outputs to lateral carbon transport models to generate a true terrestrial to ocean perspective on C transport.  The position will be located in Juneau, Alaska, with opportunity to travel and work with team members at other institutions in the US and Canada as needed.

The position is a one-year term, benefit-eligible position with a chance for renewal.  All applicants must have a PhD in a relevant field (e.g., forest/ecosystem ecology, soil science, environmental science).  The ideal candidate will have a background and skills in landscape-scale forest ecosystems and carbon cycling, such as a background in forest soils or ecosystem-scale flux measurements.  Because the goals of the project are explicitly spatial, the candidate should also have experience using and manipulating geospatial and remotely sensed datasets, as well as basic proficiency in programming languages such as R or Python and geospatial software (e.g., ArcGIS or GRASS).

For more information, please contact Dr. Brian Buma ( To apply, please visit

All (?) photographs from the longest running permanent plot network in the world, for your viewing pleasure

After a successful trip, I believe I've now collected all the photographs in existence for the 1916-2016 permanent plot network in Glacier Bay.  There are quite a few, and show a great progression from rock to...  well, it depends!  One plot has spruce, another couple are alder, and most are just willows.  This is different from other successional trajectories observed in Glacier Bay, and probably new anywhere.  It appears that willow, an early successional group of species, completely took over some plots and haven't relinquished control after 100 years.  Pretty cool, and it appears that space is the governing factor, specifically distance from seed source (a mechanism which does agree with other studies, but take to the extreme).

This coming summer I hope to do more tree coring with Dr. Greg Wiles at Wooster to determine when the cohort of late successional species (which aren't spreading well) established - it looks like an early invasion which failed to propagate further than the initial wave, but that needs to be confirmed.  We also hope to do more soil microbial work and establish a parallel set of plots for the next century.  More info on the study page.

One the best comparisons is Q4.  Compare, say, the 1949 picture to the 2016 image of Sarah attempting to find the corner spikes (below).  That's just willows.  Impressive not so much for the fact that there's growth, but that little willow in 1949 (and it's offspring) has managed to repel all later successional species, like alder or spruce, for 100 years!

Dr. Sarah Bisbing takes hemispherical photographs on Cooper quadrat #4, a willow-dominated thicket in the upper west arm of Glacier Bay.

Dr. Sarah Bisbing takes hemispherical photographs on Cooper quadrat #4, a willow-dominated thicket in the upper west arm of Glacier Bay.