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Researcher William Anderegg’s scientific contribution to the future of the forest on Earth receives the Alan T Waterman Award

William Anderegg's research contributes to ecosystem and climate change science to understand why some forests are more sensitive to drought and others more resilient to climate stress. Image: Jaycie Fickle.
William Anderegg's research contributes to ecosystem and climate change science to understand why some forests are more sensitive to drought and others more resilient to climate stress. Image: Jaycie Fickle.

The North American scientist William Anderegg -currently a visiting researcher for a year at CREAF as part of the Visitors & Sabbaticals programme– has received the prestigious Alan T Waterman Award 2023 from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The prize highlights his contribution to the science of ecosystems and climate change and, in particular, the advances made by the research group he leads to understand why some forests are more sensitive to drought and others more resilient to climate stress. William Anderegg is director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy at the University of Utah, where he is also an associate professor, and at CREAF he collaborates directly with the research group EcoPhys: Ecosystem Physiology and Global Change, led by researchers Jordi Martínez Villalta and Maurizio Mencuccini.

Innovation is the main challenge for Anderegg, in the face of the prospect of a $1 million prize and a commitment to further his own field of research in 5 years’ time.

“It’s very exciting and an incredible honour, I’m still in shock. It will allow us to undertake some ambitious, creative and high-risk projects that we have been thinking about for a long time, which are difficult to do through a normal grant”

WILLIAM ANDEREGG, visitor researcher at CREAF.

CREAF researchers Jordi Martínez Vilalta and Maurizio Mencuccini are William Anderegg’s hosts during his year-long stay at CREAF, although their scientific collaboration goes back years. “It is a pleasure to work with William Anderegg. I am honoured to have met him and to have had the opportunity to share thoughts and personal experiences with him. He is one of the brilliant minds in our field,” says Maurizio Mencuccini. For his part, Jordi Martínez Vilalta assures that the American researcher “is undoubtedly one of the leading figures in the reflection on how to take advantage of our detailed physiological knowledge of plants to improve our ability to predict the responses of ecosystems to global change”.

Forest in a changing climate

The CREAF visiting researcher’s field of study focuses on understanding the future of forest ecosystems in the face of climate change. One of the studies he undertook last year provided a comprehensive and unprecedented look at the risks to the Earth’s forests in the 21st century. “The future of the Earth’s forests depends to a large extent on the balance between two opposing processes,” he explains.

The award highlights Prof. Anderegg's contribution to ecosystem and climate change science, as well as advances in understanding why some forests are more sensitive to drought and others are more resilient to climate stress.

“On the one hand, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide usually benefits plants and should help trees grow, slowing climate change. On the other hand, climate change increases stresses from heat, drought, pests, pathogens and fires, counteracting the benefits of carbon dioxide and sometimes even killing forests, which further accelerates it. The impact of these opposing forces has profound consequences for biodiversity and climate goals. Our lab aims to understand when and where these opposing forces will win and what it means for the Earth’s forests“, according to William Anderegg.

Hales Grove forest (United States). Image: Paul Summers, on Unsplash.

A year at CREAF

The points of connection between the research fields of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy at the University of Utah and CREAF are the embryo of the joint work between the two centres, as well as the good scientific understanding. “CREAF is an incredible scientific community, very broad and proactive, and we have been collaborating with Jordi Martínez Vilalta and Maurizio Mencuccini’s group for a long time”, says Anderegg. “It also allows us to interact with people working on carbon sink issues, such as Josep Peñuelas. CREAF is one of the most exciting and dynamic places in the world when it comes to research in forest ecology, climate change and drought. I see multiple avenues, collaborations and exciting projects to illuminate responses to drought in forests, scale up from plants to ecosystems and understand the potential and risks facing forests as nature-based climate solutions.

"CREAF is one of the most exciting and dynamic places in the world when it comes to research in forest ecology, climate change and drought"  Prof. William Anderegg

The similarity between the climate of the Western United States and Spain and Catalonia in particular facilitates shared research areas. “It is a very dry climate, there is a similar topography of pine and oak forests. It allows us a really interesting and complementary comparison with the US context, because we have long-term data on mountain forests “. In a way, the opportunity lies in having the ability to analyse climate change on two continents and to the emergence of similar patterns and responses.

A recognition of the profession

Candidates for the Alan T Waterman Award must be nominated by an external set of leaders in the field – they cannot apply directly – and then award winners are selected by a committee of renown scientists. “I feel fortunate to be surrounded by such generous and brilliant scientists”, says William Anderegg, “and this award has made me reflect on how important these people have been and continue to be in my career”. The prize is awarded annually to three US researchers under the age of 40 who have made exceptional achievements in science, engineering and mathematics. The 2023 edition also honoured Natalie S. King, professor of science at Georgia State University, and Asegun S. Henry, mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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