Jeff Chambers, faculty scientist within the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at Berkeley Lab, provided testimony during a recent informational hearing of the California State Assembly focused on the impact of climate change on wildfire risk. Chambers was among a number of subject matter  experts called upon to share knowledge relevant to the lawmakers’ consideration of the nearly 9,000 wildfires that affected California in 2017.

According to experts at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, catastrophic events such as the largest of these wildfires are the greatest threat to the state’s 33 million acres of forest. Chambers, who has been studying the damage done to forested ecosystems by extreme events throughout  California, the United States Gulf Coast, and the Tropics, is regularly called upon to share his knowledge of how tree mortality affects a forest’s ability to sequester carbon and provide other beneficial functions. He currently leads the NGEE-Tropics program at Berkeley Lab.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Chambers led a team of researchers who estimated that more than 300 million Gulf Coast trees had died or suffered severe damage as a result of the storm.  More recently, Chambers and colleagues used satellite images of Puerto Rico and image processing techniques to draw similar conclusions about the damage inflicted on the island’s trees by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.  He’s currently working on a UCOP-funded Mexico Initiative study comparing the impact of drought on tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Madre Occidental.

At the February hearing in Sacramento, Chambers addressed state legislators about the potential for using similar tools to determine how California wildfires affect tree health and mortality. The ecologist referenced what he’d learned from contributing to a UC Berkeley-led effort to assess the impact of extreme drought on tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada during the years 2013 through 2016.

Chambers says that it was clear during the informational hearing that lawmakers were deeply concerned about the effects the state’s many wildfires could have on California forests. “The hearing itself focused mainly on the fires,” says Chambers. “But the lawmakers were also keenly interested in additional factors – like drought and climate change  – that could impact the state’s forests.”