Environmental monitoring and assessment

Measurements of stem diameter: implications for individual- and stand-level errors.

PMID 28748427


Stem diameter is one of the most common measurements made to assess the growth of woody vegetation, and the commercial and environmental benefits that it provides (e.g. wood or biomass products, carbon sequestration, landscape remediation). Yet inconsistency in its measurement is a continuing source of error in estimates of stand-scale measures such as basal area, biomass, and volume. Here we assessed errors in stem diameter measurement through repeated measurements of individual trees and shrubs of varying size and form (i.e. single- and multi-stemmed) across a range of contrasting stands, from complex mixed-species plantings to commercial single-species plantations. We compared a standard diameter tape with a Stepped Diameter Gauge (SDG) for time efficiency and measurement error. Measurement errors in diameter were slightly (but significantly) influenced by size and form of the tree or shrub, and stem height at which the measurement was made. Compared to standard tape measurement, the mean systematic error with SDG measurement was only -0.17 cm, but varied between -0.10 and -0.52 cm. Similarly, random error was relatively large, with standard deviations (and percentage coefficients of variation) averaging only 0.36 cm (and 3.8%), but varying between 0.14 and 0.61 cm (and 1.9 and 7.1%). However, at the stand scale, sampling errors (i.e. how well individual trees or shrubs selected for measurement of diameter represented the true stand population in terms of the average and distribution of diameter) generally had at least a tenfold greater influence on random errors in basal area estimates than errors in diameter measurements. This supports the use of diameter measurement tools that have high efficiency, such as the SDG. Use of the SDG almost halved the time required for measurements compared to the diameter tape. Based on these findings, recommendations include the following: (i) use of a tape to maximise accuracy when developing allometric models, or when monitoring relatively small changes in permanent sample plots (e.g. National Forest Inventories), noting that care is required in irregular-shaped, large-single-stemmed individuals, and (ii) use of a SDG to maximise efficiency when using inventory methods to assess basal area, and hence biomass or wood volume, at the stand scale (i.e. in studies of impacts of management or site quality) where there are budgetary constraints, noting the importance of sufficient sample sizes to ensure that the population sampled represents the true population.