Portland State professor helps bring forests of the future to life
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: March 13, 2018

What if you could see what a forest might look like 50 or 100 years from now? Imagine being able to see how a warming climate turned a dense forest into sparser woodlands.

Soon, there will be an app for that. With just a smartphone and a cardboard headset, users will be able to immerse themselves in a forest years into the future.

Portland State University researcher Melissa Lucash is part of a team that is working to visualize how a variety of factors – including climate change, wildfires, insect invasions and harvesting practices – can alter a forest and how that information can then be used by forest managers when making decisions.

The project is funded by a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program. It's a collaborative effort between faculty and students from Penn State University, Portland State, North Carolina State University and the College of Menominee Nation.

The study, which began in August 2016, focuses on the dense and diverse forest of the Menominee Nation, a vital cultural and economic resource for the 9,000 tribal members who live on or near the 230,000-acre reservation in Wisconsin.

Lucash, a professor of geography who serves as co-director of the Global Environmental Change Laboratory in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, uses a computer modeling system designed to predict what a forest will look like under different scenarios. 

She takes data on temperature, insect outbreaks, wind storms and harvesting and plugs them into the LANDIS-II simulation model to see how they play out on a particular landscape. She then does a series of calculations to generate outputs that can be used to build a virtual forest by Alexander Klippel, a Penn State geography professor who specializes in immersive technologies such as virtual reality and 3D modeling, and his Ph.D. student, Jiawei Huang.

But turning a grid of cells representing a species' biomass and age into data that can be visualized is challenging and has involved some trial and error. In the first prototype, the trees were too skinny, too far apart or lacked the leaves and understory that make a forest come to life. 

"It's really the first time that people have tried to connect ecological modeling with virtual reality," she said. "It's so new, so we're still trying to figure out the best way."

Lucash said the goal is to use the visualizations to help forest managers better understand what the rise of some species and the decline of others means for the future of the forests. It could help them make more-informed decisions about which species to plant or whether it's better to clear-cut or patch-cut.

The research team, which includes a philosopher and an anthropologist, will also explore the values people attach to forests and whether the different scenarios change the way they think and act.

Any change to forests could have major implications for the Menominee people who depend on them for their livelihood.

"It's one thing to look at a map and say, 'Oh, climate change is going to kill aspen trees.' It's another to walk through a forest and see what it looks like now and see in the future that those pretty aspen trees are not there anymore and how that affects you personally," Lucash said. "Whether it'll affect people's ideas about climate change, I'm not sure, but it's important to explore. It makes it much more tangible."

The group hopes to launch the app within a year. It will be made widely available and since cardboard viewers cost as little as $10, Lucash said it could provide museums and schools with an inexpensive and innovative way to teach about climate change.

"It's just fun to be working on a project where you work with virtual reality and to think kids will put on these goggles and they'll walk through these forests that I simulated is pretty fun," Lucash said.

Lucash is the only member of the research team from Portland State. The other research team members include: Erica Smithwick, Alexander Klippel, Nancy Tuana, Rebecca Bird, Klaus Keller and Robert Nicholas from Penn State; Robert Scheller, a former Portland State professor now at NC State; and Christopher Caldwell from the College of Menominee Nation.

For updates on the project, visit the Visualizing Forest Futures website.