Forest canopy gap dynamics: Quantifying forest gaps and understanding gap – level forest regeneration in Upper Mississippi River floodplain forests

Completion Report SOW2019FG5
By: , and 



In most forest systems, the dynamics of forest canopy gap development play an important role in the transition from relatively short-lived early successional tree species to longer-lived, late successional tree species. In resilient forest systems, tree seedlings establish within newly created canopy gaps and grow to close the gap within one or two decades of disturbance. However, evidence in portions of the Upper Mississippi River System indicates that floodplain forests do not appear to be following these same trajectories, with canopy gaps instead seeming to fail to recruit new tree seedlings and reverting to non-forested cover types. Because of the heavy dominance of short-lived tree species in current UMRS forests, there is concern that continued failure of canopy gaps to recruit back to forest could be an early indicator of long-term, widespread forest loss as gaps become larger and larger and begin to coalesce into large, non-forested areas. Little research to date has documented either the density and distribution of forest canopy gaps across the UMRS or the vegetative conditions within those gaps to provide an initial assessment of forest dynamics in those areas. The current study utilizes both remotely sensed data and field sampling to assess the conditions of forest canopy gaps within 6 navigation pools on the Upper Mississippi River and one pool on the Illinois River. In general, canopy gap distributions and characteristics are similar across the study, with most pools ranging from 3% to 5% of forest canopy in gaps. Gap sizes are also relatively uniform, with most pools averaging 0.09 to 0.14 ha per gap. The highest proportion of forest cover in canopy gaps at the pool level was driven by the total number of gaps and not gap size, indicating that canopy gap formation in this system is commonly due to individual tree or small clump mortality. Undesirable competing vegetation was dominant in most canopy gaps, with reed canarygrass and native forbs being most prevalent in upper pools and vines most problematic in the lower pools. In the upper pools, very little viable forest regeneration is occurring within canopy gaps. The viability of forest regeneration increases in middle and lower pools, though competing vegetation continues to be a problem. Overall, canopy gaps appear 3 most likely to recruit back to forest in lower pools, and chronic forest loss facilitated by regeneration failures seems most likely in upper pools. However, competing vegetation in lower pools may still interact with woody regeneration to limit effective reestablishment of forest canopy.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Forest canopy gap dynamics: Quantifying forest gaps and understanding gap – level forest regeneration in Upper Mississippi River floodplain forests
Series title Completion Report
Series number SOW2019FG5
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Long Term Resource Monitoring (LTRM); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center
Description 73 p.
Country United States
State Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin
Other Geospatial upper Mississippi River floodplain
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