US Forest Service Research & Development
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  • US Forest Service Research & Development
  • 1400 Independence Ave., SW
  • Washington, D.C. 20250-0003
  • 800-832-1355
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Chris Swanston

Chris Swanston

Director - Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science
410 MacInnes Dr
United States

Phone: 906-482-6303 x20
Contact Chris Swanston

Current Research

I pursue two main science thrusts: (1) climate change adaptation; and (2) ecosystem carbon cycling, with particular emphasis on soil carbon cycles. Each thrust integrates information, lessons, and perspectives from the other. The climate change thrust includes collaborative research and service as Director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), with responsibility for leading NIACS staff in the development of vulnerability assessments, adaptation strategy and planning documents, and other climate and carbon science delivery in support of natural resource planning, management, and decision making. The carbon cycle thrust encompasses basic research on soil carbon from multiple ecosystems using a variety of tools and methods, creating information about soil carbon movement and stabilization, and conversely, vulnerability to loss by landuse and climate change.

Major NIACS efforts include the

  • Climate Change Response Framework, an integrated set of tools, partnerships, and actions to support climate smart conservation and forest management. Three projects cover over 133 million acres in 9 states, in partnership with over 45 organizations, including 11 National Forests.
  • Climate Change Resource Center, a web-based platform providing relevant, credible information about climate change and adaptation to forest managers. NIACS helps manage the site in close collaboration with all five USFS Research Stations and the Climate Change Advisor's Office.
  • International Soil Carbon Network, a community-driven network created to enhance communication, collaboration, efficient use of scientific resources, and the advancement of soil carbon research.
  • Radiocarbon Collaborative, a formal partnership between the Forest Service, the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (CAMS), and Michigan Technological University, to support extensive radiocarbon analysis in large scale ecological studies.

In my soil carbon research, I study how organic debris (carbon) enters forest soil and is subsequently stabilized or "lost," and how this varies with forest ecology, soil mineralogy, management, natural disturbance, and climate. Much of my work uses different isotopes of carbon (14C, 13C) to increase the sensitivity of estimates of carbon flux and turnover rates. Current collaborative research addresses the primary inputs and flow paths of belowground carbon in eastern oak forests; soil organic matter stabilization in a west-to-east transect across Oregon, with differing forest types, mineralogy, and climate; and the influence of fire and charcoal on forest soil carbon storage and flux.

Research Interests

In future research I hope to: study the effects of invasive soil organisms on the carbon distribution and fluxes in northeastern forest soils; continue studying the roles of fire ecology and different carbon inputs in forest carbon cycles; work with scientists and land managers to assess ecosystem climate vulnerability, plan adaptation actions, and implement those actions on the ground in replicated treatments.

Why This Research is Important

Climate is changing and is likely to have increasing impacts on many forests as continues to change. Land managers need specific information, strategies, and tools to address increased societal emphasis on carbon management and the unique challenges of managing forests given uncertainty about the range of future climate and ensuing ecosystem responses. There is thus a clear and pressing need to bridge the gaps between broad-scale climate predictions, academic discussions of ecosystem responses, and actual management activities in forests. My work with NIACS helps bridge those gaps. My isotopic work with soil carbon is much less applied, but it is important to remember that soil carbon is a fundamental component of forest productivity and structure, strongly influencing soil fertility, resistance to erosion and compaction, and water storage and availability. Soil carbon also plays a large role in global fluxes of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Globally, there is at least twice as much carbon in the soil as in the atmosphere, and two thirds of forest carbon is in the soil. Understanding the forms and fate of forest soil carbon can help us predict, mitigate, and adapt to the effects of disturbance at wide spatial and temporal scales.


  • Oregon State University, Ph.D. Forest Science 2000
  • Oregon State University, M.S. Forest Science 1996
  • Humboldt State University, B.S. Forest Ecology and Soils (NRPI) 1993

Professional Experience

  • Director, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Research
    2008 - Current
  • Adjunct Professor, School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University
    2007 - Current
  • Research Ecologist, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station
    2007 - Current
  • Environmental Scientist, Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
    2005 - 2007
  • Post-doctoral Scientist, Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
    2002 - 2005
  • Post-doctoral Fellow, Unité Biogéochimie des Ecosystèmes Forestiers, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), France
    2000 - 2002

Professional Organizations

  • North American Carbon Program, Member (2010 - Current)
  • International Soil Carbon Network, Chair (2009 - Current)
    Past Chair of SSG
  • Ecosystem Science Center, Member (2007 - Current)
  • American Geophysical Union, Member (2002 - Current)
  • Soil Science Society of America, Member (1993 - Current)

Awards & Recognition

  • Climate Adaptation Leadership Award for Natural Resources (federal agency), 2016
    National Fish, Wildlife, and Plant Climate Adaptation Strategy’s Joint Implementation Working Group; outstanding leadership to advance the resilience of the Nation’s living natural resources in a changing climate; awarded NIACS
  • Minnesota Climate Change Adaptation Award, 2014
    Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership; leadership in climate adaptation by an institution, awarded to the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science
  • USFS Chief’s Honor Award, Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
    developing and delivering scientific principles, partnerships, and actions for adaptation to climate change in national forests; awarded to lead climate change scientists – Linda Joyce, Constance Millar, David Peterson, and Christopher Swanston
  • NRS Director’s Excellence in Science and Technology Award, 2013
    The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) is recognized for its outstanding value in providing service to the forestry community by creating an array of information resources, providing direct outreach, and developing adaptation tools.

Featured Publications & Products


Citations of non US Forest Service Publications

    • Fröberg, M.; Jardine, P.M.; Hanson, P.J.; Swanston, C.W.; Todd, D.E.; Tarver, J.R.; Garten Jr., C.T. 2007. Low dissolved organic carbon input from fresh litter to deep mineral soils. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 71(2):347-354.
    • Krull, E.S.; Swanston, C.W.; Skjemstad, J.O.; McGowan, J.A. 2006. The importance of charcoal in determining the age and chemistry of organic carbon in surface soils. Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeochemistry. 111(G04001):doi:10.1029/2006JG000194.
    • Sollins, P.; Swanston, C.; Kleber, M.; Filley, T.; Kramer, M.; Crow, S.; Caldwell, B.A.; Lajtha, K.; Bowden, R. 2006. Organic C and N stabilization in a forest soil: Evidence from sequential density fractionation. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 38(11):3313-3324.
    • Hanson, P.J.; Swanston, C.W.; Garten Jr., C.T.; Todd, D.E.; Trumbore, S.E. 2005. Reconciling change in Oi-horizon carbon-14 with mass loss for an oak forest. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 69(5):1492-1502.
    • Swanston, C.W.; Torn, M.S.; Hanson, P.J.; Southon, J.R.; Garten, C.T.; Hanlon, E.M.; Ganio, L. 2005. Initial characterization of processes of soil carbon stabilization using forest stand-level radiocarbon enrichment. Geoderma. 128(1-2):52-62.
    • Swanston, C.; Homann, P.S.; Caldwell, B.A.; Myrold, D.D.; Ganio, L.; Sollins, P. 2004. Long-term effects of elevated nitrogen on forest soil organic matter stability. Biogeochemistry. 70(2):229-252.
    • Swanston, C.W.; Caldwell, B.A.; Homann, P.S.; Ganio, L.; Sollins, P. 2002. Carbon dynamics during a long-term incubation of separate and recombined density fractions from seven forest soils. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 34(8):1121-1130.
    • Homann, P.S.; Caldwell, B.A.; Chappell, H.N.; Sollins, P.; Swanston, C.W. 2001. Douglas-fir soil C and N properties a decade after termination of urea fertilization. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 31(12):2225-2236.
    • Sollins, P.; Glassman, C.A.; Paul, E.A.; Swanston, C.; Lajtha, K.; Heil, J.W.; Elliott, E.T. 1999. Soil Carbon and Nitrogen: Pools and Fractions. In: G. P. Robertson, C. S. Bledsoe, D. C. Coleman and P. Sollins, eds. Standard Soil Methods for Long-Term Ecological Research. New York: Oxford University Press. 89-105.
    • Swanston, C.W.; Myrold, D.D. 1998. Evaluation of the stem injection technique and subsequent 15N partitioning in red alder crowns. Plant and Soil. 198(1):63-69.
    • Swanston, C.W.; Myrold, D.D. 1997. Incorporation of nitrogen from decomposing red alder leaves into plants and soil of a recent clearcut in Oregon. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 27(9):1496-1502.

Research Highlights


Adaptation Demonstrations Provide Real World Examples of Climate Change Response

Climate change will have long-term effects on forest ecosystems, and the services they provide. High-quality scientific information is critical, ...


Adapting urban forests to a changing climate

A framework for urban forest vulnerability assessment and adaptation, piloted with partners in the Chicago region, is informing master planning ...


Assessing the Vulnerability of Northern Wisconsin's Forests to Climate Change

A team of scientists and managers from the Forest Service and other organizations assessed the vulnerability of northern Wisconsin forests to cl ...


Climate Change Resource Center Website Now Includes Science Information from Northern and Southern Research Stations

The Climate Change Resource Center (CCRC) website, which has provided practical, science-based information on managing ecosystems under climate ...


Climate Change Response Framework Project in Northern Wisconsin Models Strategies for Preparing for Global Climate Change Effects

The Northern Research Station' Northern Institute of Applied Carbon Science and its cooperators---the Eastern Region, the Chequamegon-Nicolet Na ...


Radiocarbon sheds light on climate change and carbon cycle

The Forest Service provides nationwide support for carbon and climate research through the Radiocarbon Collaborative, which has supported a wide ...


Resources Help Land Managers Adapt to a Changing Climate

An adaptation planning tool developed by the Forest Service and its partners has helped generate more than 185 examples of climate change adapta ...


Scientists Collaborate to Deliver Best Science on Climate Change and Forests

It's a challenge to bring partners together, but the Forest Service led more than 130 scientists and natural resource managers in the creation o ...


Scientists and Managers Work To Develop Climate-Smart Conservation Strategies

Project that addresses the needs of land managers in a changing climate has expanded to nine States and more than 133 million acres


Urban Forestry Climate Change Response Framework Pilot Launched

Forest Service scientists are working to incorporate climate change considerations into urban forest management in the Chicago area. Recently, t ...


Last updated on : 02/15/2019