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Disturbance Ecology and Forest Landscape Ecology

Disturbance (e.g., fire, windthrow, insect outbreaks) is an integral part of most natural systems, and many organisms have adapted to the natural disturbance regimes in a variety of ways. Disturbances often result in “open space” and, through their gradients of severity, introduce complex spatial heterogeneity. Furthermore, the occurrence and effects of disturbance also depend on landscape structure before the disturbance occurred. Thus disturbances are particularly important in landscape ecology because they both create and respond to spatial heterogeneity at multiple scales. Disturbance regimes are changing rapidly in the modern world due primarily to anthropogenic factors. However, compared to climate change, biological invasion, and changes in land use and land cover, disturbances generally have not received adequate attention, despite their profound effects on ecosystems and landscapes. Many internationally renowned ecologists such as Drs. Jerry Franklin and Monica Turner have called for renewed and concerted efforts to enhance our understanding of disturbance ecology and the effects of changing disturbance regimes on forest health, carbon cycling, biodiversity conservation, species invasion, and climate systems.

The Institute of Applied Ecology identifies disturbance ecology and forest landscape ecology as a new nurturing research direction not only because disturbance is a key driver of global climate change and strongly affects ecosystems and humanity, but also because the Institute possesses excellent scientists and facilities to conduct research in this direction. The Institute currently has three research groups whose work focuses primarily on large-scale landscape processes and disturbances. These are the Landscape Ecology Group, the Landscape Processes Group, and the Disturbance Ecology Group. These groups have well-trained scientists, among whom, two were recipients of the “One Hundred Talents Program” award of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and one has received the “National Excellent Young Scientist Award” from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). The facilities are supported by the State Key Laboratory of Forest and Soil Ecology, which is equipped with remote sensing image processing software including ERDAS 9.3, ERMAPPER 5.5, and EVNI 4.5; GIS software including ArcGIS 10.0, ArcView 3.3; landscape analysis software FRAGSTATS 3.3; spatial statistic software PC-ORD, R, and SAS; forest landscape model LANDIS PRO 7.0; and the ecosystem process model LINKAGES II 2.2. The software and hardware support the needs for analyzing forest landscape structure, function, and change.

These groups have made significant contributions to the field of disturbance ecology and forest landscape ecology. The Landscape Ecology Group was established in IAE in 1988, the first such research unit in China. Researchers from this group have received 8 national, provincial, and CAS awards, trained one quarter of the Ph.D. students who have graduated in Landscape Ecology in China, and played a leading role in this field in China and Asia. Major contributions made by the three research groups in the past five years include: (1) Development and application of forest landscape models; (2) Identification of spatio-temporal patterns of northeastern China’s fire occurrence; (3) Computer simulation of fire spread behavior; (4) Remote sensing assessment of burn severity and its effects on post-fire vegetational succession; and (5) Analysis of the response of fire disturbance to climate change and its influences on regional productivity. A total of 97 SCI papers have been published in scientific journals including Global Change Biology, Ecology, Ecological Applications, Landscape Ecology, Forest Ecology and Management, the International Journal of Wildland Fire, and PLoS ONE.

The Institute of Applied Ecology strives to help these groups continue their current momentum in research productivity. Based upon our previous research and future development, the focal areas of disturbance ecology and forest landscape ecology in IAE include the following: 1) forest landscape modeling; 2) the effects of large-scale disturbance such as wildfire on ecosystem services; 3) the interaction of disturbance, climate, and forest landscape; and 4) urban planning and forest landscape design. Specifically, we will target forest ecosystems of Northeast China, utilize integrated approaches of field inventory, landscape modeling, remote sensing, GIS, and spatial statistics to tackle the following research questions: 1) How pattern, function, and ecological benefits of forests in urban and natural landscapes will change in Northeast China; 2) How climate change and forest landscape processes interactively affect and control forest landscape change and functions; and 3) How to improve forest ecosystem functions and mitigate the potential negative effects of climate warming through effective urban planning and forest management.

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