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Team to study effects of drought, fire on forests

$15 million NSF grant to fund project led by Idaho researchers.

Farm Press Staff

June 5, 2024

4 Min Read
Road closure sign
A sign warns motorists of a road closure because of wildfire.Oregon State University

A research team led by scientists from the University of Idaho has secured $15 million in National Science Foundation grants to study the long-term impact of drought and fire on forest ecosystems.

The six-year award from the NSF’s Biology Integration Institutes will create the EMBER (Embedding Molecular Biology in Ecosystem Research) Institute and bring together researchers rom a variety of institutions and backgrounds — from experts across biological disciplines including molecular and cellular biology, organismal physiology and ecosystem sciences, according to a U of I release.

Scientists from across the country are involved in the project, including researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Washington State University.

“We are looking at how stress caused by increasing drought and wildfire affects forest recovery and resilience. By working together, we are not just investigating how trees or microbes respond but how organisms depend on each other to survive,” said Tara Hudiburg, principal investigator for EMBER and professor in U of I’s Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences. “Is this extra stress going to change how these ecosystems respond to climate change? Will they continue to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration? Will they get better at it? Is there anything we can do to improve resistance? Those are the questions we’re asking.”

Despite the benefits of bringing together people with a variety of backgrounds to tackle the big problems of the 21st century, the task is easier said than done.

“We had to go pretty far outside of our comfort zone and start talking to people we’ve never interacted with before scientifically,” said Laurel Lynch, assistant professor in U of I’s Department of Soil and Water Systems and co-principal investigator on EMBER.

The team includes both experimentalists and modelers — two groups of people who usually work separately — and the results of this collaboration may impact the way the world tackles climate change.

“Working in siloed disciplines has been our traditional approach as scientists, but we no longer have time for incremental progress,” Lynch said. “We hope that bringing our disciplines together will help us to understand these dynamic systems as a whole and inform the policies that tackle pressing issues like climate change.”

‘Impacting the world’

One of EMBER’s partners is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which participates in intergovernmental climate policy groups worldwide.

“It’s not a big leap for us to be able to say that we will be impacting the world,” Hudiburg said.

Chris Marx, biology professor at U of I and another co-principal investigator on the project, hopes EMBER will identify a tangible way to help plants and microbial communities re-establish after a fire.

“How do you grow in ash? Especially since ash is such a challenging environment for organisms,” Marx said. “We want to explore how rapid evolution within microbial species and communities can influence tree survival, and whether we can use this information to help forests survive and thrive after a wildfire.”

In addition to research, part of EMBER’s responsibilities includes community outreach. EMBER will partner with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to establish an Indigenous Innovation Lab for tribal and rural students, develop a unique teacher fellows training program and engage with citizens from across the political spectrum — including climate change skeptics. As such, the EMBER team is partnering with U of I’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research and RepublicEn, a conservative organization dedicated to solving climate change by hosting discussions in a non-combative political space.

“This award is well suited to the research expertise of our faculty leads here at University of Idaho,” Vice President for Research and Economic Development Chris Nomura said. “Their approach to understanding physiological and acclimation strategies for trees and microbes and methods to identify the impact of fire and drought on interactions between microbes and trees will inform predictions of ecosystem response to these events. This is truly an outstanding team who has put in a tremendous effort to obtain this award, and I expect great things from them going forward.”

Other U of I researchers on the project include Klas Udekwu, Michael Strickland and Kris Waynant, as well as database manager Andrew Child and postdoctoral fellow Kelsey Bryant.

The team also includes Winslow Hansen from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, N. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez from University of California, Berkeley, Emily Graham from Washington State University, Will Wieder from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Lon Chubiz from University of Missouri-St. Louis, Laura Laumatia from the Coeur D’Alene Tribe and Chaun Macqueen and Parker Mullins, both from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

This project was funded to University of Idaho by the National Science Foundation under award 2320667. The total project funding is $2,669,046, with an estimated total of $15 million in the future, of which 100% is the federal share.

Source: University of Idaho

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