The 60-acre plot of mostly oak and hickory trees just north of Interstate 44 is not readily distinguishable from any other sprawling forest at the foothills of the Ozarks.
But it soon may play a key role in predicting how forests could mediate the effects of climate change.
Most of the plot’s trees and new tree stems, more than 39,000 of them in fact, have been mapped, tagged and identified, a project that took Jonathan Myers, an assistant professor of biology at Washington University, and others the better part of three years.
In November, the plot, at the university’s Tyson Research Center, situated between Lone Elk and West Tyson county parks near Eureka, was named a Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory.
It is now part of a network of 52 other forest plots scattered around the world being used to study climate change and biodiversity.
“We essentially do a CSI attack on the forest,” Myers said.
Forest dynamics have traditionally been left out of the models used to predict global climate change, and one of the goals of the Smithsonian observatories is to add them into the mix to provide a better understanding of what weather patterns will be like decades from now.
• See an interactive, 360-degree panorama of the forest by photographer Chris Lee
Trees, or the lack of them, play a critical role in reducing or increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is thought to be large factor in rising temperatures.
The carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels over the past century is absorbed by forests. But as climate change produces more extreme weather events, such as droughts that kill off trees, it’s uncertain where that carbon dioxide will go.
It’s also unknown if forests could thrive amid rising CO2 levels, consuming more of it as levels keep increasing, or if they will stop taking it in because of the stress that comes with higher temperatures and more droughts.
“If forests stop absorbing it, then that’s a huge shift,” said Sean McMahon, staff scientist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md.
In part, the Smithsonian project is examining both how climate change affects forests and how forests affect climate change.
“Each one answers the other,” McMahon said.
Initially, Myers didn’t set out to be part of a global network of forest observatories. He was doing postdoctoral research in biodiversity at Washington University in 2010 when he stumbled across a nearly 30-year-old master’s thesis that described the plot at Tyson in detail.
“That’s what really got us excited,” Myers said. “Then we thought we could expand this project and add it to the (Smithsonian’s).”
It also was fortuitous that the researchers from 30 years ago were familiar with the Smithsonian’s original Forest GEO in Barro Colorado Island in Panama. In fact, they used the same data collection techniques that were used on the island, McMahon said.
And what’s more, the data time span would eventually include two of the worst droughts in Missouri history, in 1988 and 2012. The latter was the worst in Missouri’s recorded history.
That gave Myers a unique laboratory, which perhaps will help in the understanding of how forests will change amid warming temperatures.
“What role are forests going to play in sequestration of CO2 if droughts are becoming more commonplace and potentially causing mass die-offs of trees?” he asked.
Myers is quick to point out that the bulk of his work is focused not on greenhouse gases but on biodiversity.
He’s interested in answering such questions as why tropical forests maintain a greater number of plant and tree species than temperate forests. But even the answer to that question touches on the climate.
Forests with more biodiversity tend to be more resilient, Myers said.
Myers, with the help of a few dozen area high school students, has not only mapped most of the forest but also installed hundreds of temperature sensors that collect data every 10 minutes, as well as hundreds of seed traps.
He plans on continuing the work over the summer and taking a new census each year.
In fact, it seems, little in the plot won’t be examined, from the leaves down to the soil.
And Myers, 35, said he had pretty much committed himself to the project for the rest of his career.
The longer it is studied, he said, the more fruit it will yield.
“Ideally,” he said, “I would like this project to continue well beyond my career for the next 200 years.”