Forest Landscape Ecology of the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain

Science Center Objects

Forests are the dominant land cover along the floodplain of the Upper Mississippi River System. These forests are primarily made up of relatively short-lived and rapidly growing species, such as willow, cottonwood, silver maple, green ash, American elm, but with inclusions of slower growing and longer-lived species, such as oak and hickory species.

There has long been concern among natural resources management agencies that changes in water-levels since lock and dam construction have shifted the distribution of forest cover to higher elevation areas and changed species compositions toward more flood-tolerant species. It is further anticipated that the future flooding regime of the UMRS will change due to continued watershed land use and/or climate change, and that these changes will further influence the distribution and diversity of floodplain forests. Threats from insect pests such as the Emerald Ash Borer and invasive herbaceous plants like Japanese hops and reed canary grass can also impact the composition and structure of floodplain forests, with implications for the ecosystem services that they provide (e.g., habitat for recreationally valuable species and clean water).


Pool 8/Pettibone Island, Upper Mississippi River, Spring 2019, flooding

Pool 8/Pettibone Island, Upper Mississippi River, Spring 2019, flooding

(Credit: KathiJo Jankowski, USGS-Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. Public domain.)


Factors Influencing Floodplain Forests and Related Research Efforts at UMESC:

Research at UMESC has generally focused on identifying how different factors influence floodplain forests, these studies have included:

  1. Impacts of large magnitude floods on tree survival and changes in forest succession (Yin et al. 1993, 1999, 2009).
  2. Impacts of long-term, persistent, patterns of flood inundation on forest species composition (De Jager et al. 2012, 2016)
  3. Effects of invasive herbaceous species and herbivory on forest recruitment and nutrient cycling (De Jager et al. 2013, 2015, Cogger et al. 2014, Kreiling et al. 2015, Swanson et al. 2017).

The Future UMRS Floodplain Forests

With so many factors interacting in space and time to influence the dynamics of floodplain forests, it is extremely difficult to identify a single likely future trajectory.  However, scientists at UMESC have developed a simulation modelling framework that allows them, and resource managers, to evaluate potential future trajectories for floodplain forests under a range of different environmental and management regimes. This model consists of a UMRS system-wide surface water modelling component, which can be used to simulate past (50-years) and potential future (100’s of years) patterns of flood inundation at daily, annual, and decadal time scales (Van Appledorn et al., in review). Linked to this component are additional modules that represent different forest successional processes, as well as ways to simulate impacts of forest management actions (e.g., planting, timber harvest) and other disturbances (e.g., wind, fire, herbivory, insects). The model has been used to simulate a range of potential alternative futures for UMRS floodplain forests (De Jager et al. 2018, 2019) and these futures have been used to help establish management and restoration objectives related to floodplain forests (McCain et al. 2018). 

Literature Cited:

Cogger, B.J., De Jager, N.R., Thomsen, M.T. 2014. Winter browse selection by white-tailed deer and implications for bottomland forest restoration in the Upper Mississippi River valley, USA. Natl Areas J 34:500–509.

De Jager, N.R., Thomsen, M., Yin, Y., 2012. Threshold effects of flood duration on the vegetation and soils of the Upper Mississippi River floodplain. USA. Forest Ecology and Management 270, 135–146.

De Jager, N.R., Cogger, B.J., Thomsen, M.A., 2013. Interactive effects of flooding and deer

(Odocoileus virginianus) browsing on floodplain forest recruitment. Forest Ecology and Management 303, 11–19.

De Jager, N. R., Swanson, W., Strauss, E. A., Thomsen, M., & Yin, Y. (2015). Flood pulse effects on nitrification in a floodplain forest impacted by herbivory, invasion, and restoration. Wetlands Ecology and Management, 23, 1067–1081.

De Jager, N.R., Rohweder, J.J., Yin, Y., Hoy, E., 2016. The Upper Mississippi River floodscape: spatial patterns of flood inundation and associated plant community distributions. Applied Vegetation Science 19, 164–172.

De Jager, N.R., Van Appledorn, M., Fox, T.J., Rohweder, J.J., Guyon, L.J., Meier, A.R., Cosgriff, R.J., Vandermyde, B.J., 2019. Spatially explicit modelling of floodplain forest succession: interactions among flood inundation, forest successional processes, and other disturbances in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain, USA. Ecological Modelling 405: 15-32.

De Jager, N.R., Rogala, J.T., Rohweder, J.J., Van Appledorn, M., Bouska, K.L., Houser Jeffrey, N., Jankowski, K., 2018. Indicators of ecosystem structure and function for the Upper Mississippi River System: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1143, 115 p. including 4 appendixes.

Kreiling, R. M., De Jager, N. R., Swanson, W., Strauss, E. A., & Thomsen, M. 2015. Effects of flooding on ion exchange rates in an Upper Mississippi River floodplain forest impacted by herbivory, invasion, and restoration. Wetlands, 35, 1005–1012.

McCain, K.N.S., S. Schmuecker, and N.R. De Jager 2018. Habitat Needs Assessment‐II for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program: Linking Science to Management Perspectives.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, Rock Island, IL 

Van Appledorn, M., De Jager, N.R., Rohweder, J.J. In review. Development and evaluation of a geospatial model for characterizing floodplain inundation dynamics in large river-floodplain ecosystems. Journal of Hydrology.

Van Appledorn, M., De Jager, N.R., Rohweder, J.J. In review. Quantifying and mapping inundation regimes within a large river-floodplain ecosystem for ecological and management applications. River Research and Applications.

Yin, Y., Nelson, J.C., Swenson, G., Langrehr, H.A., Blackburn, H., 1993. Tree mortality in the Upper Mississippi River and floodplain following an extreme flood in 1993. 1993 Flood Observation Report. Long Term Resource Monitoring Program.

Yin, Y., 1999. Floodplain forests, p 9.1 to 9.9. In U.S. Geological Survey, Ecological status and trends of the Upper Mississippi River System 1998: A report of the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program. U.S. Geological Survey, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin April 1999. LTRMP 99-T001.

Yin, Y., Wu, Y., Bartell, S., Cosgriff, R., 2009. Patterns of forest succession and impacts of flood in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain ecosystem. Ecological Complexity 6, 463–472.

Additional Resources and Data:

UMRS System-wide flood inundation attributes: