Forest Governance and Climate Change in Driving Native Insect Outbreaks

Outbreaks of native insects periodically strip forests in many parts of the U.S., and understanding the natural forces that lead to outbreaks has been a long-standing scientific goal. Much less studied has been how human activities may interact with natural processes to promote or inhibit outbreaks. This project will investigate how the governance of forests at local to federal levels, human-caused climate change, fire frequency, and forest composition together determine outbreaks of the mountain pine beetle in western North America. This native insect has recently expanded its range and abundance and killed millions of hectares of trees. Results are expected to provide a scientific basis for the crafting of new policies that can better prevent or mitigate outbreaks of this and other insects and the substantial economic losses they cause. A modeling tool for managers and researchers will be made publicly available, and the project will collaborate with the U.S. Forest Service to support control of outbreaks. The research will also train graduate students from groups underrepresented in science and reach out to K-12 and undergraduate students through local events and an open, online course.

This project aims to advance understanding of coupled natural and human systems that are governed by feedbacks between government policies, ecological processes and climate change. The study will develop an agent-based, computational model with submodels for social and ecological components that interact to produce emergent, large-scale patterns of forest change under a variety of climate change scenarios. Researchers will employ high-performance, parallel computing that strategically distributes climate, insect, and human decision-making to provide a multitude of simulations representing the space of potential future landscape patterns. Uncertainty analysis will provide insight into how various human and natural processes interact over time to influence the location and timing of outbreaks.

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