Loren Albert is an assistant professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, who along with her research group is tackling two international projects. The first, funded by NSF, focuses on the ecohydrology of Amazon forests. The other, funded by NASA, aims to advance scientists’ ability to estimate flows of carbon between forests and the atmosphere from space with remote sensing, and includes a partnership with Brazilian faculty to lead a field course for Brazilian graduate students to learn more about concepts in tropical forest ecology and physiology.

In as simple of terms as possible, can you please tell us more about your research?
I study how forest photosynthesis responds to climate change, and I scale up from trees to ecosystems and landscapes to consider how forests can impact climate as well. I study tropical forests since they contain and photosynthesize a vast amount of carbon, as well as forests here at home in the Pacific Northwest.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?
Can we estimate photosynthesis from space? We’re entering a new era of remote sensing with new technology from NASA and private companies that collects massive amounts of data on forest structure and function. Some of these remote sensing signals are linked to photosynthesis, but it remains challenging to estimate photosynthesis from these signals. We set out to integrate remote sensing with models, and measurements of tree anatomy and physiology, to clarify how remote sensing signals are linked to photosynthesis.

Who else is involved in this research?
Our team consists of scientists from Central America, Brazil, Netherlands and Asia, as well as the United States. We’re interdisciplinary as well. We’re integrating plant physiology with ecology and remote sensing, and I’m excited about how we’re building bridges between these fields.

Why does this work matter?
Each year, humans are emitting more than 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Plants on the land are taking up somewhere around a third of that CO2, and whatever CO2 is not taken up by plants and the ocean stays in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. While the causes of climate change are well understood, we need to know more about how much CO2 plants will continue taking up so that we can predict the trajectory of climate change. Of course, forests are key among land plants because they store and take up so much carbon. In other words, how much will plants, especially forests, help us mitigate climate change? This is a big picture question that many scientists are working on. The contribution of my group right now focuses on understanding more about the drivers of photosynthetic carbon uptake in forests across space and through time.

What do you hope the impact will be?
I hope that we can gain a better understanding of the role of forests in Earth’s carbon budget, improve the models that predict future climate (through development of forest physiology in those models), and generally understand more about the flows of carbon, water, and energy between forests and the atmosphere. On the human side, I hope that we can build long-lasting collaborations and friendships with scientists working in the Amazon, train students, and launch careers of the next generation of scientists.

What has surprised you about this research?
We’re learning that individual tree species in the tropics greatly impact the rate and seasonality of photosynthetic carbon uptake. On the one hand, all trees photosynthesize, but on the other hand, the differences in leaf shape, size, canopy architecture, and many other features greatly affect photosynthesis. The tropics are so diverse. There are thousands of tree species in places like the Amazon, and their differences really impact the carbon cycle.

How does this work differ from other work in the field?
We are melding ‘ground data’ (the measurements we make on plants when we do fieldwork) with models to simulate what we expect to see from space. In model parameterization, it is still common to rely on plant physiology data from crops. It is rare to find research that spans scales from individual leaf measurements, to trees, to landscapes, where the research team is making all those measurements across those spatial scales at the same site.

What’s next for this research?
My group is planning a field campaign in the Brazilian Amazon this summer, where we will fly drones, collect leaves to measure leaf traits and physiology, and exchange knowledge with our Brazilian collaborators. We sleep in hammocks in a field station at the edge of the forest, listening to the forest night sounds. We’re looking forward to it.

And finally, is there anything you wish I would’ve asked you about this research that you’d like to share?
I want to emphasize how none of this research would be possible without the welcome and efforts of our international collaborators. We all share an atmosphere on this Earth, and productive forests, whether in the tropics or the Pacific Northwest, are helping shape the future for all of us. The role of these forests in the carbon cycle is a question we all have a stake in.

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