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Protecting the Pines Forest management practices impact on climate

Dr. Jason Vogel, assistant professor at the University of Florida (UF), works with assistant research scientist, Dr. Rosvel Bracho-Garillo, to better understand how the management of forests impacts climatic variables such as carbon and water. This research takes place in Austin Cary Forest (ACF), a 2,040 acre immersive teaching and research campus utilized by the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources & Conservation. The variety of practices at ACF provide Vogel and Bracho-Garillo with the perfect canvas to carry out their research.

Pictured is the eddy covariance system tower in Austin Cary Forest. Nestled among the pines, this tower reaches 100 feet tall.

Vogel and Bracho also work with Dr. Tim Martin to conduct this research. Learn more about Dr. Martin's research on Streaming Science.

The core of their research focuses on measuring carbon dynamics to determine the productivity of the forest using an Eddy Covariance System. The Eddy Covariance System works by measuring changes in water vapor and carbon dioxide concentration as quickly as 10 times per second. When an eddy (air bubble) passes through the device, it is able to measure these variables. This accelerated collection of factors allows the scientists to see even slight variations in the carbon levels in ACF.

“Eddy Covariance is the best way to measure ecosystem carbon dynamics. What you're effectively doing is measuring the breath of a whole ecosystem,” explains Vogel.

Vogel studies climate change and ecosystem cycling. He began his research in the boreal forests of Saskatchewan, Canada over 20 years ago. The transition to Florida, specifically ACF, provided him the opportunity to work closely with the pine savanna ecosystem that sprawls through the southeastern United States.

Vogel and Bracho discuss how the data is collected, sent, and stored from this box to a computer.

In contrast, Bracho-Garillo graduated with his Ph.D. in Venezuela, where his interests were in tropical savanna ecosystems. With Bracho-Garillo’s in-depth knowledge of eddy covariance systems, and Vogel’s history of research in carbon cycling, the pair makes strides to further the knowledge of how these systems monitor Florida’s own pine savannas.

“Pine ecosystems and pine conditions are the most productive ecosystems that we know in the U.S.,” said Bracho-Garillo.

The eddy covariance system, which has been in place at ACF for over 20 years, has endured drought, hurricanes, harvesting, and prescribed burns. Practices such as prescribed burning are used as a management technique to restore forest ecosystems. These factors have led to a decrease in overall tree cover over time.

The equipment at the base of the tower provides power for the measurement instruments to function and transmit data properly.

“What's really fascinating is that the amount of carbon that the ecosystem is taking up has not decreased. So even though you have fewer trees, the ecosystem is still sucking up a lot of carbon,” explains Vogel.

Traditionally in ecosystem theory, an ecosystem will lose its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere over time. Surprisingly, the results do not show a decrease in that ability at ACF.

Vogel and Bracho‘s research demonstrates the management of pine forests does not mean that land-owners lose valuable environmental aspects, such as carbon accumulation or water yield. Large plots of pine forests in Florida have a great capacity to sequester carbon.

According to Vogel, “On top of that we can have greater biodiversity so that there's a win-win-win situation going on in these forests when we manage them for these pre-colonial characteristics.”

Good for the forest, good for the farmer.

Apart from the environmental benefits, land-owners also have the opportunity to harvest trees in these ecosystems and sell them as timber.

The research Dr. Vogel and Dr. Bracho conduct on eddy covariance in UF’s ACF provides vital information on the resilience of Florida’s pine savanna ecosystems. Their research sheds light on the future of carbon cycling potential in forests, and will pave the way for landowners to utilize management practices that are mutually beneficial for themselves and the environment.

Dr. Bracho-Garillo explains how instruments on the tower, like the sonic anemometer he is holding, are used to measure variables such as wind speed, net radiation, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and relative humidity.

Vogel recognizes, “I think the pressure on these forests to promote land development perspective is going to cause us to make some hard decisions about what we value.”

As Eddy Covariance Systems make their way into more forests and more data is recorded, we can begin to use various management practices to help sustain ecosystems much larger than ACF. On a global scale, managing forest ecosystems will allow for more carbon intake and greater plant and wildlife biodiversity.

Author: Bailey Hutchinson

Bailey Hutchinson is an undergraduate student studying Agricultural Education and Communication with a specialization in Leadership Development at the University of Florida.

Email Bailey Hutchinson at baileyhutchinson@ufl.edu with any questions or comments about this project.

Author: Julia Tiplea

Julia Tiplea is an undergraduate student studying marine science at the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

Email Julia Tiplea at julia.tiplea@gmail.com with any comments or questions about this project.

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Bailey Hutchinson
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Photos taken by Bailey Hutchinson