Brice Hanberry, Culture, modern ecosystems, old data, University of Missouri, USDA Forest Service -

Modern Ecosystems Get a Little Help from History

Old data is helping Missouri forests.

People tend to not like old things — old news, old viewpoints, old beauty products… But there are a lot of old things people should like because they are totally useful. Case in point: old data about forests from the 1800s.

A recent press release from the University of Missouri revealed that university researchers used the school’s historical records to examine how natural disturbances — wildfires, human actions — shape forest conditions and the ecosystem services of modern forests.

New Researchers, Old Data

The study, “Loss of Aboveground Forest Biomass and Landscape Biomass Variability in Missouri, U.S.” was published in the Ecological Complexity Journal. Brice Hanberry, a research associate in the MU School of Natural Resources, wrote the study with the help of Hong He, professor of forestry, and Stephen Shifley, cooperative professor of forestry and U.S. Forest Service scientist.

Hanberry partnered with the USDA Forest Service to examine the surveys, which were originally conducted in Missouri by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. General Land Office (GLO) between the years 1813 and 1850. Hanberry and her team used the records from the original Missouri survey. “[The original] surveyors used ‘witness trees’ to mark survey lines and section corners,” the release states. “In the process, they recorded the species, diameter and relative location of these trees. Using those data, Hanberry and her team reconstructed Missouri forest conditions in the early 1800s.”

Helping Modern Forests

The researchers discovered that the historical forests had fewer trees, but the trees were larger. The findings also indicated that historical “forests had more total biomass… and sequestered more carbon than current forests.”

Although the researchers acknowledge that it most likely isn’t possible or desirable for Missouri forests to revert to their historic conditions, the researchers and forest managers will benefit from understanding the conditions of past forests by helping “scientists understand the range of possibilities conservation managers can consider when deciding how best to manage future forests.”

“Conservation efforts in current forests should include retention of mature trees, and planners should consider retention of larger trees in urban, residential and agricultural uses to maintain ‘natural capital,’” Hanberry says.

So, that’s a win for old research, smart researchers, trees, and an ecosystem… All wins we can get behind.

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Image of Missouri forest via Shutterstock

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