Clark to Lead $4.3 Million Study to Devise Better Climate Vulnerability Forecasts for Forests Feb

February 26, 2012

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

DURHAM, NC – James S. Clark, H.L. Blomquist Professor of Environment at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, is leading a new, five-year research project to devise more reliable forecasts for predicting the vulnerability of forest biodiversity to climate change.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant totaling $4,273,484 to fund the study, which aims to provide the first probabilistic forecasts of combined forest biodiversity responses to climate change, including growth, reproduction and mortality risk, directly linked to the process scale.

Clark, who also holds appointments at Duke as professor of biology and statistics, says the study’s forecasts will help scientists, U.S. Forest Service researchers and policymakers better anticipate the combined risks of climate impacts, such as drought and longer-growing seasons.

“Large-scale forest diebacks, apparently linked to interactions involving drought, warm winters and competition with other species, are becomingly alarmingly frequent over much of the globe, but current models of biodiversity and climate have not provided much advance guidance on if, where or when such responses will occur,” he says. This failure is largely due to the fact that both models and field studies rely on aggregate metrics of species distribution and abundance at regional scales, “but climate,” Clark notes, “affects individuals.”

By sampling and analyzing forest responses at the individual tree scale across continental variations in climate, he believes the new study’s forecasts will help resolve disparities and allow his team “to determine which tree species are at risk in which regions and habitats, and evaluate the consequences for biodiversity in predictive distributions.”

The study will be conducted at existing research sites and new National Ecological Observatory Network sites across the eastern United States to allow a synthesis of models and data. Over time, Clark says, this broad-based approach will enable the team to determine where and when predicting climate impacts on biodiversity is a plausible goal, and where surprises are likely to occur. It also will allow them to attribute predictions back to individual tree health and vulnerability to climate risk factors.

New knowledge and forecasting methods developed through the project will be shared with resource managers, postdoctoral associates, and students at the university and K-12 levels.

About $1.5 million of the grant will support work by Clark and his lab at Duke.

Clark’s co-investigators on the study are Alan Gelfand, James B. Duke Professor of Statistics and Decision Sciences and professor of environmental sciences at Duke; Michael Dietze, assistant professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois; Andrew Finley, assistant professor of forestry at Michigan State University; Jacqueline Mohan, assistant professor of ecology at the University of Georgia; Marie Uriarte, associate professor of ecology at Columbia University; and Sean McMahon, temperate program coordinator at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Note: James S. Clark is available for additional comment at (919) 613-8036 or