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Who has seen the wind? UTSC’s Adam Martin, that’s who

Wind plays an important factor in the size of trees according to new research co-authored by UTSC ecologist Adam Martin. (Photo by Bonnie McGill)

Ecologists traditionally classify forest ecosystems by measures of temperature, rainfall and soil fertility. But now University of Toronto researchers have discovered a fourth element that shapes forests: the wind.

In a paper published this week in the Journal of Ecology, the research team demonstrates how wind can drastically affect the “allometry” of trees. Allometry is the study of how the size of an organism relates to its shape. In the case of trees, for example, it can involve quantifying how the diameter of the trunk compares to its height.

“Wind is not a conventional environmental factor to mention,” says Adam Martin, an ecologist in UTSC’s the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and one of the paper’s authors. “But we found that trees in high-wind areas were much shorter than those with the same diameter in stiller environments.”

Working with the study’s lead author, U of T Faculty of Forestry Professor Sean Thomas, Martin oversaw much of the field data collection. The researchers were studying everyday windiness – not catastrophic events like hurricanes and tornados. Erin Mycroft, a graduate from U of T’s Faculty of Forestry, was another author on the paper.

Using funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canada Research Chairs program, Martin and his colleagues analyzed the a tree species common to the Commonwealth of Dominica and the country of Panama. On the wind-swept isle of Dominica the trees were typically 15 metres shorter than those in Panama’s more sheltered forests.

Similar diameter-height ratio variation also showed up in comparisons between sheltered and windy areas just within Dominica The allometry changes were consistent once again in generalized studies of rainforests around the globe, regardless of species.

Tree heights can correlate with a forest’s capacity to store carbon – meaning that wind’s effects on tree allometry could affect climate change models. But Martin says their research is more realistically valuable to the development of a more generalized, broader and deeper understanding of tropical forest ecosystems.

“Instead of breaking our analysis of rainforests up region by region – the Amazon, Southeast Asia, the Congo, this research gives us the potential to differentiate according to ‘wind regimes,’ ” Martin says. “We could tease out new comparative differences.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough