BEST-CLIM: Best Ecosystem STructure for CLImate Mitigation


Climate change is undeniably one of the grandest challenges that society is and will be facing over the next decades. With individual citizens, cities, corporations, and countries now being acutely aware of the potentially severe impacts entailed by rising CO2 emissions and temperatures, the call for natural climate solutions grows louder. “Negative emissions technologies” are thus becoming increasingly popular—in particular the strengthening of carbon capture in trees and forests. However, the common notion that dense tall vegetation mitigates climate change is not straightforward in arid lands such as the US Southwest. This is because dense forest is darker than the underlying desert soil and therefore absorbs more solar energy. This energy is mostly released as heat and antagonizes the cooling effect of CO2 removal from the atmosphere. The big and complex question is: What is the optimal vegetation structure and density to maximize the climate cooling potential of arid environments?

Within the BEST-CLIM project, students and researchers work closely together to address the above question and build a stronger scientific basis for ecosystem management and restoration initiatives in the US Southwest. Our long-term goals are to:

  • Develop wall-to-wall maps of desired vegetation conditions for the US Southwest;
  • Determine how these optimal conditions compare to current conditions;
  • Develop forward-looking scenarios of land-cover change and disturbance dynamics (e.g., fire) to inform adaptive ecosystem management.

Students engaged in BEST-CLIM gain hands-on experience with fieldwork, lab work, data analysis and curation, as well as with the dissemination of our findings to administrative, scientific, and public audiences. Students focus on one or multiple connected research tasks, including:

  • Establishing and maintaining a network of permanent ecological sampling plots across the Sky Islands to represent forest, woodland, and shrubland systems;
  • Assessing the vegetation structure, density, and surface energy balance of each plot and the entire region using remote sensing;
  • Quantifying the growth and productivity of woody vegetation using dendroecological methods and ecological scaling;
  • Estimating the evapotranspiration cooling associated with a given vegetation type;
  • Considering the disturbance dynamics and impacts associated with a given vegetation type;
  • Homogenizing and curating field observations and laboratory measurements to develop an efficient project database;
  • Analyzing and visualizing data to better understand vegetation-climate feedbacks;
  • Describing and interpreting results to facilitate their presentation within UArizona, to the broader scientific community, and to stakeholders and ecosystem managers.

Participating students are strongly encouraged to provide critical input and constructive suggestions and ideas that may open up new research avenues and shape the VIP. Our expectation is that BEST-CLIM members, regardless of their career stage, form a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive unit where everyone’s voice is being heard. At the individual level, students have the chance to gain a variety of transferrable and analytical skills that will empower them on their future career path. In addition, BEST-CLIM collaborates closely with local and regional land managers and practitioners, including the US Forest Service, which will offer students further insight in possible career opportunities.

Issues Involved or Addressed

  • Land-atmosphere interactions
  • Terrestrial carbon cycling
  • Surface energy balance
  • Ecosystem ecology and productivity
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Disturbance dynamics and land cover change
  • Ecosystem restoration

Methods and Tech

  • Remote sensing (ground, air, space)
  • Geospatial information
  • Ecological scaling
  • Dendroecology
  • Scientific programming (R, Python, etc.)
  • Statistical data analysis and visualization
  • Science communication
  • Data curation and archiving

Academic Majors of Interest

In line with the interdisciplinary nature of BEST-CLIM, we are open to all majors. Our research foci may be of particular interest to students from:

  • Natural Resources
  • Environmental Science
  • Geography
  • Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Geosciences
  • Statistics and Data Science

Preferred Interests and Preparation

  • Curiosity and self-motivation
  • Aptitude for critical, creative, and constructive thinking
  • Organization, communication, mentoring, and leadership skills
  • Collaborative engagement
  • Dedication to scientific integrity and inclusive excellence
  • Motivation to communicate research outcome to various audiences
  • Preferred: Strong interest in and basic understanding of ecosystem ecology
  • Preferred: Basic understanding of tree physiology
  • Preferred: Basic understanding of remote sensing
  • Preferred: Basic statistical/analytical/programming skills

Team Advisors

Flurin Babst, PhD

Don Falk, PhD

William K. Smith, PhD

Willem van Leeuwen, PhD

Alicja Babst-Kostecka, PhD