Scientists create 3D forests to study climate change

27 February 2016

In an attempt to know how climate change can affect forests in the future, a team of US researchers has created a computer-simulation 3D model to understand the impact of climatic conditions on forests.

"We call our model ''LES'' - after the Russian word for forest," said Nikolay Strigul from Washington State University Vancouver in the US.

"It is a tool that forest managers can use to create 3D representations of their own forests and simulate what will happen to them in the future," Strigul said in a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Climate change is leading to more frequent drought, warmer weather and other varying natural conditions. It is difficult to determine how forests would recover from change in dynamic disturbances like wildfires or clear-cutting.

The team planned to use LES to help forest managers determine which species of trees and other ecological factors are necessary for forests to re-establish themselves after being destroyed by wildfires and other disturbances.

LES uses recent advances in computing power to grow 100100-metre stands of drought and shade tolerant trees that can then be scaled up to actual forest size in three weeks.

Below ground, the roots of different trees in LES compete for water resources in each pixel of the model.

Above ground, the leaves in each tree's canopy compete for sunlight in a similar fashion.

Over time, the trees' canopies change shape to expose their leaves to more sunlight.

According to the researchers, drier conditions in the future will prevent forests from re-establishing themselves after a clear-cut or wildfire. This could lead to increasing amounts of once-forested areas converted to desert.

"Drive an hour east along the Columbia River from Vancouver and you will notice a complete transition from very dense forests to savanna and then to desert," Strigul noted.

"Our model can help predict if forests are at risk of desertification or other climate change-related processes and identify what can be done to conserve these systems," he added.

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