Exploring the effects of microscale structural heterogeneity of forest canopies using large-eddy simulations

Gil Bohrer, Gabriel G. Katul, Robert L. Walko, Roni Avissar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (RAMS)-based Forest Large-Eddy Simulation (RAFLES), developed and evaluated here, is used to explore the effects of three-dimensional canopy heterogeneity, at the individual tree scale, on the statistical properties of turbulence most pertinent to mass and momentum transfer. In RAFLES, the canopy interacts with air by exerting a drag force, by restricting the open volume and apertures available for flow (i.e. finite porosity), and by acting as a heterogeneous source of heat and moisture. The first and second statistical moments of the velocity and flux profiles computed by RAFLES are compared with turbulent velocity and scalar flux measurements collected during spring and winter days. The observations were made at a meteorological tower situated within a southern hardwood canopy at the Duke Forest site, near Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A. Each of the days analyzed is characterized by distinct regimes of atmospheric stability and canopy foliage distribution conditions. RAFLES results agreed with the 30-min averaged flow statistics profiles measured at this single tower. Following this intercomparison, two case studies are numerically considered representing end-members of foliage and midday atmospheric stability conditions: one representing the winter season with strong winds above a sparse canopy and a slightly unstable boundary layer; the other representing the spring season with a dense canopy, calm conditions, and a strongly convective boundary layer. In each case, results from the control canopy, simulating the observed heterogeneous canopy structure at the Duke Forest hardwood stand, are compared with a test case that also includes heterogeneity commensurate in scale to tree-fall gaps. The effects of such tree-scale canopy heterogeneity on the flow are explored at three levels pertinent to biosphere-atmosphere exchange. The first level (zero-dimensional) considers the effects of such heterogeneity on the common representation of the canopy via length scales such as the zero-plane displacement, the aerodynamic roughness length, the surface-layer depth, and the eddy-penetration depth. The second level (one-dimensional) considers the normalized horizontally-averaged profiles of the first and second moments of the flow to assess how tree-scale heterogeneities disturb the entire planar-averaged profiles from their canonical (and well-studied planar-homogeneous) values inside the canopy and in the surface layer. The third level (three-dimensional) considers the effects of such tree-scale heterogeneities on the spatial variability of the ejection-sweep cycle and its propagation to momentum and mass fluxes. From these comparisons, it is shown that such microscale heterogeneity leads to increased spatial correlations between attributes of the ejection-sweep cycle and measures of canopy heterogeneity, resulting in correlated spatial heterogeneity in fluxes. This heterogeneity persisted up to four times the mean height of the canopy (hc) for some variables. Interestingly, this estimate is in agreement with the working definition of the thickness of the canopy roughness sublayer (2hc-5hc).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-382
Number of pages32
JournalBoundary-Layer Meteorology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Atmospheric boundary layer
  • Atmospheric modelling
  • Backscatter
  • Biosphere-atmosphere interactions
  • Land-surface heterogeneity
  • Large-eddy simulation
  • Regional Atmospheric Modeling System
  • Tree canopy
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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