Moderate forest disturbance as a stringent test for gap and big-leaf models
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Disturbance-induced tree mortality is a key factor regulating the carbon balance of a forest, but tree mortality and its subsequent effects are poorly represented processes in terrestrial ecosystem models. In particular, it is unclear whether models can robustly simulate moderate (non-catastrophic) disturbances, which tend to increase biological and structural complexity and are increasingly common in aging U.S. forests. We tested whether three forest ecosystem models—Biome-BGC, a classic big-leaf model, and the ED and ZELIG gap-oriented models—could reproduce the resilience to moderate disturbance observed in an experimentally manipulated forest (the Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment in northern Michigan, USA, in which 38% of canopy dominants were stem girdled and compared to control plots). Each model was parameterized, spun up, and disturbed following similar protocols, and run for 5 years post-disturbance. The models replicated observed declines in aboveground biomass well. Biome-BGC captured the timing and rebound of observed leaf area index (LAI), while ED and ZELIG correctly estimated the magnitude of LAI decline. None of the models fully captured the observed post-disturbance C fluxes. Biome-BGC net primary production (NPP) was correctly resilient, but for the wrong reasons, while ED and ZELIG exhibited large, unobserved drops in NPP and net ecosystem production. The biological mechanisms proposed to explain the observed rapid resilience of the C cycle are typically not incorporated by these or other models. As a result we expect that most ecosystem models, developed to simulate processes following stand-replacing disturbances, will not simulate well the gradual and less extensive tree mortality characteristic of moderate disturbances.