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UNH Scientists, Students Help Lead Global Change Meetings

By David Sims, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
March 5, 2008

At two simultaneous national and international meetings this week, faculty and students from UNH are helping lead efforts focused on improving humanity’s understanding of and ability to predict the carbon balance, biome pattern, and effects on biodiversity of global climate change.

At both high-level workshops, which include a NASA-sponsored meeting in Virginia and an international session in Japan of the world’s top modelers, scientists will lay the groundwork for how to best measure and model global changes in the structure of terrestrial ecosystems due to both manmade and natural causes.

Says UNH ecologist and modeler George Hurtt of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS), “This effort is important because, for the first time, we’re talking about measuring and modeling globally the key structural changes to ecosystems in response to causes such as land use, climate change, hurricanes, and fires.” Hurtt, of the EOS Complex Systems Research Center, helped organize both meetings.

The focus of the international modeling workshop, being held at the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences in Japan through Friday, is on the boundaries of ecosystems because, according to Hurtt, these regions are the “canaries in the coalmine” where critical ecosystem changes are happening first and fastest.

“This gathering of international experts is focused on understanding and developing mathematical computer models to predict how biome boundaries will change in response to future climate change and land use change, such as tropical forest to savanna transitions, boreal and alpine tundra to forest transitions, and changes to the boundaries between temperate deciduous and evergreen forests,” Hurtt says.

The national meeting, a NASA-sponsored workshop being held through today, is focused on the requirements for a new satellite that will measure vegetation height and biomass globally from space, and use these data to reduce uncertainties and improve model predictions about the global carbon balance and habitat changes from space.

According to Hurtt, the mission being planned will revolutionize terrestrial ecology and carbon cycle studies by providing an unprecedented global dataset on the vertical structure of ecosystems worldwide.

“Currently we know the extent and health of forests better than we know the size of the trees. This mission should remedy that,” he says.

Others from the Complex Systems Research Center participating in the NASA meeting are professors Steve Frolking and Mary Martin, research scientist Michael Palace, and graduate student Katelyn Dolan.

“It’s been exciting to hear and interact with the scientists whose papers I’ve been reading as part of my research,” says Dolan, a master’s degree student who, among other projects, has worked on the analysis of historical forest regrowth using different types of satellite data.

The purpose of the Japan-based workshop is to provide a forum to discuss and develop improved methods for predicting future dynamics of vegetation patterns. The long-term goal is to improve existing vegetation models or to develop new models that are reliable, robust and can be included in Earth system models for studying biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks.

In addition to Hurtt, doctoral student Justin Fisk is attending the meeting in Japan.

Says Fisk, whose research focuses on modeling and remote sensing of ecological disturbance, “It is an amazing opportunity to be involved in an international collaboration on the cutting edge of research that will further our understanding of global change.”

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