You can’t see it happening. But what goes on below ground in a forest is very important in determining its fate.

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In a new study, scientists conclude that the sideways flow of water through soil can have an important impact on how riparian forests respond to climate change. Models used to predict the future plight of forests typically don’t account for this factor — but they should, researchers say.

“There hasn’t been a lot of attention on groundwater and how the movement of water from one location to another below ground can impact plants’ survival prospects, making some locations drier, and others wetter,” says lead author Xiaonan Tai, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences at New Jersey Institute of Technology. “Groundwater is a hidden water source for ecosystems that people have neglected over the years: It is very hard to observe and quantify, just because we can’t see it. The contribution of our new research is to begin characterizing lateral groundwater processes and quantifying how much of a role they can have in terms of influencing the future of forests."

The study was published in July in Environmental Research Letters, building on research themes that Tai explored as a PhD student in geography in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, where she completed her doctoral degree in 2018.

The new paper focuses on incorporating information about subsurface hydrology into computational models that predict the future fates of forests.

“Our research will fundamentally change the way the Earth systems modeling community will think about the impacts of future climate change droughts on forests,” says Scott Mackay, PhD, UB professor and chair of geography and professor of environment and sustainability. “In essence, the various vegetation models out there today assume the world is flat. Our model changes the story by allowing for water to be moved laterally below the surface, while simultaneously modeling the physiological responses of trees on the landscape.”

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