NSF Grant to Explore Coastal Temperate Rainforests

This February, Professor David Butman was part of a research team awarded a $500,000, four-year grant through the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network. The goal of the grant is to develop a research collaborative, organized as the Coastal Rainforest Margins Research Network, to study the flux of materials from coastal watersheds to nearshore marine ecosystems in Pacific coastal temperate rainforests (PCTR).

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One of the exciting possibilities of this grant, says Butman, is the potential to create foundations for larger projects in the future, including with the Olympic Natural Resources Center and Olympic Experimental State Forest.

Butman is a co-PI on the grant with two researchers from the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Through a series of workshops and other collaborations, they will be working to quantify what’s happening now in coastal temperate rainforest ecosystems, identify critical areas of future research—especially related to a changing climate—and build an international community of scientists in similar zones around the world, including in Patagonia and New Zealand.

It’s a higher-level project, says Butman, designed to figure out what still needs to be done—data and concepts at the cusp of current science—to understand the connectivity between land, freshwater and coastal systems.

This grant targets PCTR ecosystems from coastal Oregon and Washington up through southwest Alaska. These ecosystems encompass the largest coastal temperate rainforests in the world, and they include the most extensive remaining old-growth forests in North America. They also experience tremendous freshwater flux and run-off, so understanding how carbon moves through these dynamic coastal margins is a huge part of this research—and a primary focus of Butman’s role on the grant.

“This region gets more water and rain per unit area than anywhere else,” he says. “Essentially from the Olympic Peninsula up through southwest Alaska, the area sees more than six times the annual output of the Yukon River, or three times the Mississippi. So much material moves from the land to the ocean here, so it’s an exciting opportunity.”

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An important component of this research includes studying how warming temperatures and changing weather patterns will impact the long-term health of these dynamic coastal temperate rainforests.

The grant includes funding for four workshops, and Butman will be organizing the first this coming fall. It will focus on biogeochemical cycling, and he is currently reaching out to potential stakeholders and participants, from native communities to other scientists and natural resource managers.

Other major research questions the network will be addressing include: What are current freshwater and carbon fluxes in the PCTR, and how will these be affected by future changes in climate? How do forest communities, distribution and disturbance regimes drive current land-to-ocean biogeochemical fluxes across the PCTR, and how will climate-driven changes affect this flux? What is the relative importance of terrestrially derived materials transport for regulating marine ecosystem processes in the PCTR, and how will marine ecosystems respond to altered terrestrial biogeochemical fluxes? Is the PCTR a future source or sink of carbon under a changing climate, and can the insights gained about ecosystem processes in the PCTR translate to other coastal temperate rainforests? And what is the current and future contribution of coastal temperate rainforests to continental or global estimates of carbon sequestration and material fluxes across the terrestrial/marine interface?

Previous studies have explored some of these questions in parts or certain places, but the key with this broad collaborative is to organize a concerted effort to address information gaps and connect the dots—and to use this region as a model for understanding ecological processes in similar ecosystems around the world.

Photos © David Butman.

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