Doctoral Dissertation Research: Spatial Resilience in Forests Recovering from Fires

Project: Research project

Project Details


The doctoral student will investigate how landscape-level processes support forest regeneration and resilience in forests that were severely burned. Specifically, the research will focus on the ways in which surviving trees interact with the landscape to provide external seed sources for a burned area's recovery. Recent studies used only a limited measurement of straight-line distance to nearest tree seed source, which does not fully consider scale, pattern, or interactions with local site suitability for area recovery. Consequently, there is a knowledge gap regarding an understanding of how a burned area's surrounding context in the landscape supports or reduces its recovery potential (spatial resilience). Project findings will contribute to the development of approaches that better account for landscape context in a world where wildfires are becoming more severe and occurring more frequently. Given these changes, land managers must make decisions about which burned areas need to be actively replanted following wildfire activity versus areas that exhibit higher natural spatial resilience. Prioritizing burned areas in the context of their position in the landscape could be fundamental to this decision-making. To aid with decision-making, research findings will be disseminated as a decision-tree product to local and regional forest managers. Furthermore, the project will provide educational opportunities for undergraduate students by involving them in fieldwork and by developing workshops that engage K-12 girls with geography and spatial sciences. Finally, the project will support a female doctoral student, further broadening participation of women and underrepresented groups in geography and spatial sciences.

Identifying the spatial scales at which landscape context is important for a burned forest's recovery is an important first-step in a holistic understanding of forest resilience and recovery. However, scale-dependent effects are often species-specific, thus identifying relevant scales must account for divergent tree traits and interactions with local site suitability for tree growth. To do so, the doctoral student asks three research questions: (1) What spatial extents and patterns of landscape context support a burned area's recovery? (2) How does landscape context interact with local site characteristics of recovering areas? (3) At broader temporal and spatial extents, will landscape context mediate resilience of forest ecosystem services in drier, more fire prone landscapes? These questions will be answered using statistical modeling and fieldwork-generated data from a natural experiment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The natural experimental landscape includes fires that represent a gradient of burn patterns and post-fire climate conditions in a similar geophysical setting, thereby providing a unique opportunity to observe the effects of landscape context on different burned areas' recovery. Additionally, the investigator will use a spatially explicit ecosystem process model to investigate how landscape context at broader temporal and spatial scales support carbon storage and tree biodiversity.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date6/15/195/31/22


  • National Science Foundation: $18,000.00


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