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Purdue University

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Complex tree canopies help forests recover from moderate disturbances

Researchers have long been aware of extreme events that devastate forests, but they've paid less attention to more frequent, moderate-severity disturbances like small fires, ice storms, or outbreaks of pests. Brady Hardiman, an associate professor at Purdue University, emphasizes that these moderate disturbances play a significant role in forest ecosystems, shaping them over time. Hardiman and his team, along with co-authors, used lidar data from sites across the National Ecological Observatory Network to study how these disturbances affect forest canopy structure.
Their study, published in the Journal of Ecology, reveals that lidar data can detect subtle changes caused by moderate disturbances. This data, collected over a decade, provides valuable insights into forest dynamics. Elizabeth LaRue, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and a Purdue PhD alumna, highlights the importance of NEON's extensive data collection efforts in enabling such research on a continental scale.
Forest canopy structure, including height, openness, density, and complexity, is crucial for ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling and biodiversity. The researchers found that forests with more complex canopy structures are better equipped to recover from disturbances. They suggest that managing forests to promote structural complexity could enhance their resilience.
Analyzing NEON data was computationally demanding, requiring resources from Purdue's Rosen Center for Advanced Computing. The researchers had to account for changes in lidar technology and sensor configurations over time to ensure consistency in their analysis.
This research, part of the Institute for Digital Forestry's initiative, aims to develop tools for more frequent and detailed tree measurements globally. By bringing together ecologists, foresters, computer scientists, and engineers, the institute hopes to innovate forest management practices.
Funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service supported this work. The study's co-authors include researchers from Purdue University, the USDA Forest Service, the University of Vermont, Harvard Forest, and the University of Connecticut.

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