Public Release: 

Oregon team to study impacts of climate change on pesky forest insect

Interdisciplinary team, with NSF support, to build computational model to probe how forest governance and climate influence deadly insect infestations

University of Oregon

EUGENE, Ore. - The mountain pine beetle is a pest. Native to the forests of western North America, the insects infest tree after tree, killing off entire swaths of forest during outbreaks.

The effects of climate change and years of forest policies have led to an unprecedented epidemic in which tens of millions of acres of trees have been killed over the past 20 years, says a University of Oregon researcher.

Christopher Bone, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, and his research team plan to use the power of computing to help better inform the response to the pine mountain beetle epidemic, thanks to a $1.3 million award from the National Science Foundation (No. 1414041). The grant comes from NSF's Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program that seeks to address how humans and the environment interact.

"Responses to these outbreaks have largely existed as federal or state-level initiatives aimed at mitigating ongoing damage caused by beetle infestations," Bone said. "Minimal attention has been paid to how multiple levels of governance, from local stakeholders to federal agencies can interact to produce novel, flexible and timely responses that can potentially alter both current and future beetle impacts under the uncertainty of climate change."

By using a computational model that identifies large-scale patterns of forest change under a variety of scenarios, the research team hopes to improve existing knowledge on the mountain pine beetle infestation. Because the problem is governed by a complex interaction between government policies, ecological processes and climate change, it is well suited to the kind of high-performance parallel computer modeling the research team is employing.

The team led by Bone includes faculty members Patrick Bartlein and Daniel Gavin, geography; Allen Malony, computer and information science; Cassandra Moseley and postdoctoral researcher Jesse Abrams, Institute for a Sustainable Environment. Additional members are Mark Altaweel of the University College London, and Mike North and John Murphy, both of the University of Chicago.

The project grew out of a winning research proposal for the UO's Incubating Interdisciplinary Initiatives (I3) award, a program sponsored by the office for Research & Innovation. The success of the project, titled "Drivers of the Beetle Empire: Understanding the Coupling of Climate Change and Forest Management in Bark Beetle Outbreaks," led the team to apply for the NSF's CNH award.

Brad Shelton, the UO's interim vice president for research and innovation, said the research team's NSF award is the kind of interdisciplinary fundamental research the I3 program was intended to foster.

"Interdisciplinary initiatives like this project by Dr. Bone and his team create vital opportunities for researchers to collaborate across disciplines," Shelton said. "The high-performance computer modeling being employed by this group is just one of the ways researchers at the University of Oregon are working together to develop new solutions to complex problems."

Three of the National Science Foundation directorates (Biological Sciences, Geosciences, and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences) support research conducted through the CNH program, which is part of the NSF's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability investment.

"An important application of advancing the understanding of natural and human systems is improving our ability to predict the environmental and social consequences of alternative policies for resource use, and our chances of choosing wisely for the future," said Peter Alpert, CNH program director in the Directorate for Biological Sciences.


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