Taking Stock of Trees

12 February 2007 (All day)

Christian Ziegler

Sizing it up.
Forest researcher Salomon Aguilar measures the trunk of a tropical tree in Panama as part of a multidecade study of tree growth and forest dynamics.

A research center devoted to long-term studies of rainforests received an $8 million grant today to expand its studies on climate change and biodiversity and to include temperate forests in its analyses. HSBC, an international banking and financial services company based in London, provided this 5-year grant to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, which has studied Panamanian forests for almost a century. The largest corporate donation ever to STRI, the grant comes on the heels of $3 million raised last year for an endowment for forest research and a $5 million grant with Yale University to put forest science into the hands of policy makers.

Over the 25 years, STRI's Center for Tropical Forest Science has expanded beyond Panama's borders and now oversees a 5-year standardized census across a network of 20 study plots in 15 countries. As part of the HSBC grant, a subset of the 3 million trees--7500 species--in these plots will be measured annually to provide a finer-scale picture of variability in the growth of these forests. At the same time, researchers will collect and weigh leaf litter and measure soil carbon content at various depths to learn how increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is affecting the carbon cycle in rainforests.

In addition, the center's scientists will set up a large-scale watershed experiment in Panama in which they will look at what happens to water as it enters and exits forests, plantations, and grasslands. "We want to work out what role the forests play," in the water cycle, says ecologist Stuart Davies, director of the center. Finally, the grant will enable the center to help set up temperate forest plots in the United States and China to learn how temperate and tropical forests differ in their responses to climate change. The goal, says Davies, is to focus on "important scientific questions that single site [studies] can't address."

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