Climate change research underway in Héen Latinee

Seven years in, scientists are on their way to making forest world-class destination for climate change research

On a Saturday morning, University of Alaska Southeast biology student Alannah Johnson loaded up her pickup with science equipment, drove out to Echo Cove and located a few randomly-selected points on her GPS.

On weekends, Johnson counts mushrooms.

“The forest would be pretty stinky without them,” she said while setting up a 1-by-2 meter plot around her GPS waypoint. “They break everything down.”

The undergrad has identified about 50 different types of mushroom as part of her research in Juneau’s Héen Latinee “experimental” forest, a 40-square mile plot of land near Echo Cove set aside by the Forest Service in 2009 for scientific research.

Seven years into the Héen Latinee’s development, researchers with the Forest Service and UAS have put the finishing touches on a few long-term projects which will allow them to track the impacts of climate change on one of the world’s most diverse landscapes.

UAS ecologist Brian Buma is doing some of this work. He has recently finished surveying the forest’s biomass — the total amount of organic material the forest holds. The Héen Latinee is extremely hard to access, so Buma relies on what’s called LiDAR, which works on the principles of radar, but uses light emitted from a laser.

“The first step is just to see what’s back there,” Buma said. “LiDAR produces almost a 3D map. With this we know how much carbon exists in the forest from ocean to ice.”

Buma attached his LiDAR equipment to the bottom of a small plane which flew over the Héen Latinee to capture a 3D image of the forest canopy and undergrowth. The resulting data allowed Buma to estimate the forests biomass, a baseline number that will be used as research continues in the Héen Latinee.

Buma’s work has brought scientists one step closer to setting up decades-long surveys on the effects of climate change, says Forest Service ecologist Rick Edwards.

“The idea is that pretty much everything that happens in a coastal temperate rainforest is influenced to a large degree by the flow of water. To understand that you have to understand what’s there in the forest. With that as a basemap, we are prepared to ask a variety of questions,” Edwards said.

One of the questions that looms largest, to Edwards, is the effect of melting glaciers on the Héen Latinee’s watersheds and the salmon it feeds. The forest is home to three glaciers and the Cowee Creek and Davies Creek watersheds.

“A lot of questions revolve around the warming landscape and the diminishing of the glaciers as a product of what’s out there,” Edwards said. “What impact that will have on the distribution of vegetation, how fast vegetation grows, how productive. ... What that’s going to do as water warms and glacial inputs are reduced.”

The experimental forest encompasses 6,000 vertical feet, stretching from “white caps to ice caps,” in Edwards’ words. To study such an area, you need data that represents every elevation.

To do this, the Forest Service has recently put the finishing touches on the last of three weather stations — at 300, 2,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level in the Davies Creek Valley.

That project finished this summer.

“We have three large alpine glaciers that are shrinking. As those diminish, as snow comes later and leaves earlier, there will be a resulting change in those hydrology systems,” Edwards said. “This will have a profound impact on aquatic systems and salmon.”

Edwards is not yet sure what impact glacial melt will have on the Héen Latinee. One guess he has to do with treelines.

“In other parts of the country, an emphasis in predicting climate change effects is on the northward expansion of species that might like warmer weather. They’re thinking more in the lateral changes in animals and plants,” Edwards explained. “In the Tongass, we think about that, that’s certainly a factor, but here, we also think about the vertical change in the distribution of species.”

Edwards said that, due to extreme weather changes across elevation, Southeast’s treelines are much lower than you would expect down south. He expects trees to migrate vertically as climate change progresses.

“What we’ve predicted we’d see is an up expansion of forests into the alpine,” Edwards said.

Work will continue in the Héen Latinee, which means “river watcher” in Tlingit, for decades, Edwards said, as the slow march of climate change science progresses. In the future, the Forest Service plans to make the area more accessible to the dozens of universities interested in researching the Tongass.

They hope to develop service roads into the forest, a small cabin for overnight stays and a modest, on-site facility for processing samples.

Johnson, for her part, will keep counting mushrooms. She hopes to correlate her research with Buma’s to see how forest biomass corresponds to the presence of fungus.

A California native, she says the forest was one of the major draws for her to attend UAS.

“That’s one of the main things that drew me to UAS — your classroom is your backyard,” she said.

In the future, Edwards hopes, researchers like Johnson will flock to the Héen Latinee.

“It’s kind of the bird in the cage for climate change,” Edwards said. “It’s a bit like field of dreams, if you build it, they will come.”

• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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