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Dissertation Defense


Cordilleran Forest Scaling Dynamics and Disturbance Regimes Quantified by Aerial LiDAR

Bannister Tree Ring Building Room 110

Tyson Lee Swetnam, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, will present his doctoral thesis research.


Semi-arid forests are in a period of rapid transition as a result of unprecedented landscape scale fires, insect outbreaks, drought, and anthropogenic land use practices. Understanding how historically episodic disturbances led to coherent forest structural and spatial patterns that promoted resilience and resistance is a critical part of addressing change. Here I apply metabolic scaling theory (MST) to examine scaling behavior and structural patterns of semi-arid conifer forests in Arizona and New Mexico. I conceptualize a linkage to mechanistic drivers of forest assembly that incorporates the effects of low-intensity disturbance, and physiologic and resource limitations as an extension of MST. I use both airborne laser swath mapping (ALSM) data and field observations to quantify changes in forest structure from the sub-meter to landscape scales. I found: (1) semi-arid forest structure exhibits MST-predicted behaviors regardless of disturbance and that MST can help to quantitatively measure the level of disturbance intensity in a forest, (2) the application of a power law to a forest overstory frequency distribution can help predict understory presence/absence, (3) local statistics can help to define first order effects (e.g. topographic changes) and map where recent disturbances (e.g. logging and fire) have altered forest structure. Lastly, I produced a comprehensive set of above-ground biomass and carbon models for five distinct forest types and ten common species of the southwestern US that are meant for use in ALSM forest inventory projects. This dissertation presents both a conceptual framework and applications for investigating local scales (stands of trees) up to entire ecosystems for diagnosis of current carbon balances, levels of departure from historical norms, and ecological stability. These tools and models will become more important as we prepare our ecosystems for a future characterized by increased climatic variability with an associated increase in frequency and severity of ecological disturbances.

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