Small piece of Missouri forest part of global climate-change project

Sunday, January 12, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

EUREKA — An ordinary-looking 60-acre plot of mostly oak and hickory trees near the St. Louis County town of Eureka could be playing a major role in predicting how forests could mediate the effects of climate change.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that more than 39,000 trees and new tree stems on the land have been mapped, tagged and identified over the past three years by researchers at Washington University. The plot, which is part of the university's Tyson Research Center, is now a Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory.

That means it is part of a network of 52 forest plots around the world used to study climate change and biodiversity.

"We essentially do a CSI attack on the forest," said Jonathan Myers, an assistant professor of biology at Washington University.

One of the goals of the Smithsonian observatories is to add forests into the mix to provide a better understanding of what weather patterns will be like in decades to come. Trees or the lack of them plays a big role in reducing or increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is thought to be large factor in rising temperatures.

"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.

The project is examining how climate change affects forests and how forests affect climate change.

"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?" Myers asked.

Myers is seeking answers to question such as why tropical forests maintain a greater number of plant and tree species than temperate forests.

Myers, with help from several St. Louis-area high school students, has not only mapped most of the forest but has also installed hundreds of temperature sensors that collect data every 10 minutes. Hundreds of seed traps are also in place.

Myers, 35, said he has essentially committed himself to the project for the rest of his career.

"Ideally," he said, "I would like this project to continue well beyond my career, for the next 200 years."

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