Events & Media

NSF Awards $5 Million for Frank Davis Project to Study Climate Change Effects

Scale of research ranges from individual tree to regional populations

July 2011


Frank Davis
See the NSF press release about Davis's project and the 13 others that are part of the foundation's major integrated effort to understand the large-scale biological responses to climate and land-use change.

Scientists around the world are working to understand how natural systems and individual species within them will function under conditions of rapid climate change, which is expected to occur if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere continues to grow.

One of those scientists is Bren professor of ecology Frank Davis. His climate-research project titled “Collaborative Research: Do microenvironments govern macroecology” just received $4 million of funding for five years from the National Science Foundation, with $2.3 million of that representing the Bren School part of the award. Adjunct faculty member Lee Hannah is one of three co-PIs on the project.

The collaborative effort will also include researchers at UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, Arizona State University, the Conservation Biology Institute, the Desert Research Institute, and Conservation International.

The researchers ― an interdisciplinary team comprising climate scientists, ecologists, hydrologists, and bio-geographers ― will seek to determine how climate and plant-growing conditions vary locally in mountainous regions of the western U.S., and how that variability will affect the vulnerability of tree species to climate change.

Historical climate data and models used to forecast future climates are too coarse to depict the finer-scale spatial variability that is ecologically important to plant communities,” Davis wrote in a summary of the project.

This new work will couple field studies of microclimate and tree establishment and growth with regional climate modeling and spatial models of plant population and fire dynamics. The intention will be to identify the links between climate and ecological processes, from the smicro cale of individual trees to the macro scale of regional populations.

Study sites will include a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) core study area and a U.S. Forest Service Experimental watershed in the central Sierra Nevada, as well as two University of California Natural Reserves (Landels Hills-Big Creek Reserve in the Big Sur region, and Sedgwick Reserve in the central and southern Coast Ranges). Subjects of study include four tree species: blue oak and gray pine, which currently dominate warm, dry foothill woodlands, and black oak and ponderosa  pine, which dominate cool, moist montane forests.

Understanding and forecasting climate change effects on tree species is especially important given the role of forests in carbon cycling, timber production, water resources, and biodiversity,” Davis explains. “The insights provided by this research have the potential to revise estimates of extinction risk due to climate change, refine understanding of tree species' ability to migrate and track rapid climate change, and improve predictions of how economically important tree species will respond to climate change and associated changes in wildfire risk.”

Davis says that the research will be closely coordinated with NEON to take advantage of other studies there and to supply its investigators with valuable measurements on local climate, soils, and vegetation. The project will have a capacity-building component as well, given that at least three doctoral students and three postdoctoral scholars will be trained over the life of the project, preparing the next generation of scientists to tackle future environmental challenges.

On the application side, the value of the findings will be strengthened by the involvement of researchers from government agencies and NGOs. They are effective at linking the research to public and private land managers, policy makers, and other NGOs, resulting in better adaptive management of public and private forest resources in the face of climate change.