Research Highlights

From OSU Press Release

"Streams and rivers could pump carbon dioxide into the air at increasing rates if they continue to warm, potentially compounding the effects of global warming, a new worldwide analysis has shown.

To reach that conclusion, an international research team conducted the first continental-scale study of carbon flows into and out of streams across six major climatic zones. They collected data in watersheds from Puerto Rico and Oregon to Australia and Alaska. In each one, scientists analyzed the balance between photosynthesis — which uses atmospheric CO2 to generate plant material such as roots and leaves — and respiration, which pumps CO2 back into the air.

“This paper is the first to look at the effects of climate change on stream metabolism at the continental scale using field observations,” said Alba Argerich, co-author who monitored McRae Creek and Lookout Creek in the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest. “This approach takes into consideration the complexity of an ecosystem, as opposed to controlled experiments where you recreate simplified versions of an ecosystem.” 

Argerich and other scientists monitored streams for water temperature, dissolved oxygen and sunlight at the water surface. The researchers also simulated the balance between net primary production (the product of photosynthesis by all organisms in the stream) and respiration under a 1-degree Celsius rise in stream temperature. The net result of the simulations, they reported, was a 24 percent shift toward more respiration and CO2 emissions. 

The shift toward more CO2 emissions appears to be more pronounced in warmer streams, the scientists found, while colder streams might actually see an increase in net primary production. Carbon cycling in streams can also be affected by other factors such as the plants and microbes in the stream ecosystem and nutrients flowing into the water from surrounding lands."

Also see:

Article from Oregon Public Radio's EarthFix program: 

See the full article in Nature Geoscience, "Continental-scale decrease in net primary productivity in streams due to climate warming"

Old forests that contain large trees and a diversity of tree sizes and species may offer refuge to some types of birds facing threats in a warming climate. In a paper published in Diversity and Distributions researchers in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University reported that the more sensitive a bird species is to rising temperatures during the breeding season, the more likely it is to be affected by being near old-growth forest.  See the full article; View the press release; Watch the video.


Clearcuts often create stark boundaries between forest habitats. These ecological “edges” can seriously affect neighboring undisturbed ecosystems for some distance in from the edge, perhaps representing a multi-decadal legacy of has clearcutting. A new study led by David Bell took on the question of how historical timber harvests have affected the structure of neighboring old-growth forests in western Oregon. Bell and his team used a remote-sensing technique called lidar to map tree basal area (a measurement related to tree density and biomass) in lower and middle elevation mature and old-growth forests in the Andrews Forest. They then assessed how harvest edges have influenced tree basal area and how those effects varied with harvest size and age. They found that forests within 75 meters of harvest edges (approximately 20% on the unharvested forests) had 4-6 percent less live tree basal area than forests tucked in the interior away from edges. They were surprised to find that the length of time since harvest had little or no effect: whether the harvest happened 13 years ago or 60 made little difference on the structure of surrounding unharvested forest area. This implies that the edge influence persisted over many decades in spite of forest recovery processes. This study is important in examining the subtle impact of human activity on forest landscapes in western Oregon and showing how widespread and long-lasting the edge influence of past clearcutting has been on neighboring old-growth forest.

The paper, Historical harvests reduce neighboring old-growth basal area across a forest landscape, is published in the journal Ecological Applications:

Adam Ward (Indiana University) was awarded an NSF CAREER Grant of more than $700,000 to implement an integrated program of research and education. Much of the work will occur at the Andrews Forest. Ward's research strongly leverages the Andrews Forest's geologic diversity, existing instrumentation network, and access to a 5th order river basin. The multi-scale work and educational initiatives will take advantage of the long-term data available from the Andrews Forest site and build upon a body of work from the Andrews Forest on streams, hyporheic zones, and valley bottoms.

Ward hopes his work will help inform an accurate framework to predict and manage hydrologic exchange in the river corridor and the associated ecosystem services and functions at the scales of stream reaches and entire networks. To advance our predictive capabilities in the river corridor, this research will achieve three objectives: (1) improve our understanding of dynamic exchange processes in the river corridor; (2) develop methods to scale findings from geomorphic features to the reach and network scales; and (3) improve predictive capacity that can be readily implemented without extensive field characterization of sites of interest.

The river corridor perspective considers the surface stream its hyporheic zone, riparian zone, hillslope, and aquifer as a continuum, exchanging water, solutes, energy and materials across a range of spatial and temporal scales. The need for prediction of river corridor exchange is underscored by the proposed Clean Water Rule, which clarifies that river corridors are to be regulated as part of the Clean Water Act.The primarily controls on river corridor exchange are broadly recognized to fall within two categories: geologic setting and hydrologic forcing. Geologic setting describes the relatively static physical characteristics of a site, such as stream morphology, the hydraulic conductivity field, macro-scale lithology, and geologic parent material. Hydrologic forcing includes both stream discharge and regional hydraulic gradients causing gaining or losing conditions. More recently, dynamic hydrologic forcing (e.g., storm responses, fluctuations due to tides, dam releases, snowmelt runoff, and baseflow recession) has been recognized as an important control on river corridor exchange.

Results of this research will improve our ability to predict the transport and fate of contaminants in river corridors, enabling more effective management of water resources. The integrated education and research plans will inspire a diverse group of K-12 and undergraduate students to pursue careers in STEM fields. Ward will provide specialized training in integration of hydrology, ecology, and informatics and in River Corridor Science and Management, preparing the next generation of resource managers to effectively and sustainably govern the water resources of the U.S.

There is much discussion about how plantation forestry affects streamflow in dry (lowflow) seasons, especially as climate change may exacerbate water scarcity. Analysis of 60‐year records of daily streamflow from eight paired‐basin experiments in the Andrews Forest revealed that the conversion of old‐growth forest to Douglas‐fir plantations had a major effect on summer streamflow. Average daily streamflow in summer (July through September) in basins with 34‐ to 43‐year‐old plantations of Douglas‐fir was 50% lower than streamflow from reference basins with 150‐ to 500‐year‐old forests dominated by Douglas‐fir, western hemlock, and other conifers. The study, by Timothy Perry and Julia Jones, was published in 2016 in the journal Ecohydrology. View the full article online:

Andrews Forest researcher Dana Warren studies how light affects streams. Forest canopies along streams regulate stream light availability, which influences water temperature, in-stream primary productivity, nutrient dynamics, and, thereby, the entire aquatic ecosystem. In one publication, Dana and his team outlined a conceptual framework for understanding change in stream ecosystem processes and communities when disturbance first creates high light. As a young forest develops, stream light decreases; however, later in stand development canopy gaps are created by localized disturbances, such as windthrow, and stream light increases, but in patches. A second publication, reports results of in-stream experiments to explicitly examine how the spatial variability of stream light patches affects primary production and stream nutrient demand. In well-lit sections of the stream periphyton growth was nutrient limited; conversely, light availability was the limiting factor in poorly-lit sites. Ultimately, in the sites with more light patches (i.e., sites with old-growth riparian forests), the stream shifted frequently between light- versus nutrient-limitation.

“Long-term effects of riparian forest harvest on light in Pacific Northwest (USA) streams”

“Characterizing short-term light dynamics in forested headwater streams”

Streams move carbon from land into oceans and the atmosphere. Carbon in streams can come from leaf litter decomposing in the water. How quickly that leaf litter decomposes depends upon the temperature of the water — the higher the temperature of the water, the faster the rate of decomposition. With climate change, stream temperatures are expected to rise. The rise in stream temperature is projected to increase rates of leaf litter decomposition, thereby affecting the carbon cycle. A team of scientists, including Andrews Forest scientist Sherri Johnson, synthesized 1025 records of litter breakdown in streams and rivers to quantify its temperature sensitivity.

The study indicates average breakdown rates may increase 5 percent to 21 percent with a 1 degree to 4-degree Celsius rise in water temperature — half as much as the 10 percent to 45 percent increase predicted by metabolic theory. Mean annual water temperature for some streams and rivers is currently rising at an annual rate of about 0.01 degrees to 0.1 degrees Celsius due to changes in climate and land use. Read more in a University of Utah press release on the article.

The study “Global synthesis of the temperature sensitivity of leaf litter breakdown in streams and rivers” was published February 2016 in Global Change Biology. View the full article.

Research from the Andrews Forest suggests that old-growth forests may provide a buffer against rising air temperature. “To our knowledge, ours is the first broad-scale test of whether subtle changes in forest structure due to differing management practices influence forest temperature regimes,” wrote authors Sarah Frey, Adam Hadley, Sherri Johnson, Mark Schulze, Julia Jones, and Matthew Betts.  Read more about the paper, Spatial models reveal the microclimatic buffering capacity of old-growth forests, published in 2016, in the press release:

The amount of carbon stored in tree trunks, branches, leaves and other biomass — what scientists call “aboveground live carbon” — is determined more by timber harvesting than by any other environmental factor in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, according to a report published by researchers at Oregon State University: "Complex mountain terrain and disturbance history drive variation in forest aboveground live carbon density in the western Oregon Cascades, USA" (doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2016.01.036).

In forests that are about 150 years old or less, live carbon above the ground is associated primarily with the age of a stand — reflecting how long ago it was harvested — rather than with climate, soil, topography or fire. However, as forests mature into “old growth,” the density of carbon is determined largely by factors other than harvesting.

The Pacific Northwest has some of the highest forest-carbon densities in the world. Understanding how much carbon is stored in growing forests is a critical component of international efforts to reduce climate change. 

Researchers found that air temperatures, sun exposure and soils were also important in driving the variation in live carbon across the region. High-elevation forests tend to be cooler and contain lower amounts of carbon than do low-elevation forests. 

Researchers conducted the study at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range east of Eugene. They combined data from two types of measurements: LiDAR (an aerial mapping technique that uses lasers) and ground-based forest inventories in which scientists measured tree growth at 702 forest plots. The study is one of the few to quantify carbon in living forest biomass in mountainous terrain.

Harold Zald, research associate in the College of Forestry, is lead author of the paper published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

“Very few studies have looked at above-ground carbon at a landscape scale with the combination of LiDAR and detailed disturbance history (logging and fire) that we have at the H.J. Andrews Forest,” said Zald. “These findings can be applied to the Douglas-fir dominated forests on the west slope of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington.”

The researchers found that fire was not a significant driver of carbon density in the H.J. Andrews. In the last century, these forests have experienced little severe “stand replacing fire,” but it’s possible that fire played a significant role in shaping the structure of old-growth forests and increasing carbon density over time. “Remnant old-growth trees resulting from non-stand replacing fires likely enhance the recovery of forest C (carbon) density,” they wrote.

The study was conducted by researchers at Oregon State University, the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria.

This story is also available at

In a 2016 publication from Andrews Forest, researcher Alba Argerich and colleagues suggest that forested watersheds may not store quite as much carbon as previously thought. Small, headwater streams, such as those found in the Andrews Forest, import a higher than expected amount of carbon. See the press release. The paper, "Comprehensive multi-year carbon budget of a temperate headwater stream," was published in Biogeosciences:

A publication co-authored by a team of Oregon State University, US Forest Service, and US Geological Survey investigators compares quality of interpretation of northern spotted owl habitat based on traditional aerial photographs, Landsat satellite imagery, and recently-available, high-resolution LIDAR data. This team, led by Steve Ackers, head of the Andrews Forest-based spotted owl crew, uses the well-studied Blue River-Andrews Forest area as a test case. Information from these data sources is used in sophisticated species distribution models for the spotted owl, and many other species as well. As one might expect, each information source has its pluses and minuses. Air photo interpretation is rather subjective, hard to reproduce, and time consuming. Landsat has proven an adequate tool for extensive assessment of habitat quality, although it lacks the high precision possible with LiDAR. It is interesting to note that the first Landsat Thematic Mapper satellite was launched in 1972, just as Eric Forsman began studies of the spotted owl in the Andrews Forest and vicinity, and the first report using that imagery in habitat assessment appeared just two years later. The meter-scale LiDAR data describing topography and vegetation structure makes possible a very refined depiction of habitat, but LIDAR data are not available for the whole region, and the high precision is not necessary for many conservation purposes.  See the paper: The evolution of mapping habitat for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina): A comparison of photo-interpreted, Landsat-based, and lidar-based habitat maps