Am amazing demonstration of the tectonic power of Earth, and an chance to explore its impacts on ecological processes.
This volcano just erupted unexpectedly and explosively just near the GEM plots in Chile (in the Andes and the Central Depression) - sites of continuous monitoring by Antonio Lara and Rocio Urrutia and their team. The volcano is just about 20 km due north of our Andes plots, and about 30 km east of the Central Valley plot. It will be interesting to see how the ash deposition (if it happens, but it seems the nearby city of Puerto Montt has ash fall so the GEM plots probably have too) affects forest and soil functioning and growth rates in the short and long term.
Am amazing demonstration of the tectonic power of Earth, and an chance to explore its impacts on ecological processes.
Here are some photos I took of this volcano just last November. All seemed so calm and quiet. In the lake picture, Calbuco is on the right. Lovely, perfect Volcano Osorno is on the left...
An interview piece with the University of Oxford: the full piece is here...
My next meeting is with Yadvinder Malhi, a Professor of Ecosystem Science or – as I’ve been promised – an academic who knows lots about rainforests. I’ve come to theEnvironmental Change Institute in the School of Geography and the Environment, down the road from the Natural History Museum.
Talking to him in person, you quickly realise that Malhi is driven by his belief in the fundamental importance of rainforests to Earth. I ask him: given that you originally trained as a physicist, what first seized your imagination about Ecosystem Science?
'I went to the Amazon on a very technical research project to measure carbon dioxide emissions. But I found myself bewitched and seduced by everything about the rainforest. I was working in a city in the Brazilian rainforest, Manaus, and I had this map on my office wall of all of Amazonia. Manaus was just a dot in the centre of this map, and for virtually 1,000 miles in every direction there was nothing butre blank green. It gave me a huge sense of awe and humility, a sense of a world in which humanity was still tiny compared to the vast forces of nature, where there was still so much to discover and learn. My equipment ended up taking three months to clear customs, and in those three months I had little else to do but teach myself tropical ecology in the library of the Amazon research institute, and Portuguese in the bars of Manaus. So that potential crisis became a life-changing moment. I learnt about the basic processes of rainforests and how they work, how many dimensions there are to the complexity of rainforests, how trees grow and how they interact with animals and the atmosphere.
The tents at sunrise are 3500 m up in the Peruvian Andes, looking out over the Amazon Basin
Photo credit: Topher Bentley
'My work focused on the lowland Amazon forests of Brazil for the first few years. Then a few years later we started looking westward at Peru. I went up the slopes of the Andes to set up a "vertical laboratory" – a transect of research sites we’ve set up over 3,500 metres in elevation on the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains, looking out over the Amazon rainforest. This natural laboratory helps us to explore and understand the impacts of warming temperatures: for example, we can move soils or plants up and down the slopes to warm them or cool them and see their responses to a change of temperature, or we can study how species are migrating in response to climate change. The Andes–Amazon transect is a unique laboratory to study these ideas as well as a mind-blowingly beautiful place to work. While working here over the past decade we came up with a methodology of how we should measure forests and how they respond to climate change.
'In all our sites, but particularly in Peru, we worked really closely with teams of local researchers and students. The work we are doing just wouldn’t be possible without the strong local support. And these students are just so tough, so hard working; we are usually left behind gasping for oxygen in the thin mountain air as they sprint up the mountains ahead of us.
'Looking over the horizon in the vastly underexplored realm of the tropical rainforests, there are always new questions and opportunities. In the last few years I have wanted to spread out the new methodologies we have been developing for monitoring forests into other regions of tropical rainforest. Africa in particular has been beckoning as the least studied tropical rainforest continent. So, taking my family with me, I went on an extended sabbatical to Ghana. I began to learn about how African rainforests are similar to or different from Amazonian forests, and to build solid local collaborations in several African countries. At almost the same time we had some funding to begin working in Borneo. What all these opportunities amounted to was a chance to build a global tropical forest monitoring network, which we have named GEM (the Global Ecosystems Monitoring network). In each of these places in the GEM network we have local technicians and students who go out for a few weeks each month and do exactly the same measurements whether they are in the depths of the Congo, the Amazon or Borneo. We compare these measurements and can understand how forests are ticking over day by day, month by month, around the world.'
It’s a massive body of work scanning some of the most remote and biologically and climatically important parts of the Earth. What are your headline findings from this project?
'In the Amazon, we’ve found that the forests seem to be increasing in biomass; we think this might be a response to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has a modest impact on reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rate of global warming.
'We’ve followed this monitoring system through drought events and extreme weather events to get a handle on how these forests may respond in the future to drought events. We’ve got a paper that came out in Nature in March showing how these forests were fairly resilient to droughts, because they have an internal supply of sugars. We’re trying to understand how big these reserves are – they can’t last forever.
'Now the next challenge was: how do we coordinate these studies more coherently? They’ve all been funded by different grants, but a concentrated effort is needed to build the central infrastructure of this network. Two years ago I was awarded a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Award, which has allowed me to build a centralised network, with a common database and analysis programmes that will eventually be open access, detailed studies of the biodiversity and function of the trees in each of these sites, and a webpage as a portal.
'Part of this is experimental; we've got all these researchers all over the world and we’re trying to build a community out of them, so the GEM webpage acts almost as a scientific social network. We have examples of a student in Peru asking a question about field methods, and someone in Borneo answering. We had a question from a student in Africa asking about what others do with elephants – they had a real problem with elephants destroying their equipment. Someone in India had some suggestions for more elephant-proof equipment design.
It’s clear that you're interested in creating systems that are replicable and that can make a lasting impact in your research area. I want to know where this is all heading – what do you see as the ideal ultimate legacy of your work?
'I can see two potential legacies. One is the monitoring. Rather than being an ad hoc process, as it is now, I would hope to leave a legacy of long-term ecological monitoring across tropical rainforests that can last for decades or even centuries. That monitoring is invaluable because with climate change we'll find surprises with the system: some ecosystems are more or less resilient than we expect them to be. These monitoring plots are our canaries in the climate change coal mine. Unless we really monitor what’s going on the ground, we won’t get the early warnings of potential dangers, and how we can avoid or ameliorate them. By tracking these systems over decades, we will see important insights into how these systems are responding to climate change.
'The other legacy I’d like to see is an investment in the capacity in training and research in these regions – leading to these people rising to influence within academia, NGOs and government in their respective countries, and being local and influential voices for science and conservation. That’s the most likely way we can get long-term and sustainable management of tropical forest regions, when we get voices within the country who understand the issues and campaign for them.
Professor Malhi in the Peru transect
How significant is your work to conserve the tropical forests – what are our best- and worst-case scenarios for climate change within tropical forests in 100 years' time?
'In terms of tropical forests, my work isn’t just about climate change; I’m interested in all the facets of pressure and change in the forests. If you want to understand where tropical forests are heading you can’t isolate climate change from deforestation, logging and hunting. I'd say the best case scenario is where there is still ongoing social and economic development in the tropics, and there is an improvement in people's livelihood, but it's done in a way that maintains large areas of intact and functional forests which provide a home to what is over half of the Earth’s biodiversity. I see there are some countries where, if we can get the governance in place and link it into the science, the tropical forests have a decent chance of surviving. So if you asked me about the future of the Amazon, I’d say there are challenges there, but I’d be optimistic. Climate change is a threat, but if it's not hugely disturbed, or disturbed in a careful way, the Amazon can be resilient to the changes it faces.
'Currently the scenario leads to far more pessimism in Asia, where there has been relatively far more extensive deforestation. I think the most optimistic scenario here is to see them transitioning to a similar scenario, where there are limits to the deforestation and degradation that occurs, and we ensure critical parts of the ecosystem are left intact.
'The Central African rainforest is relatively unknown. It’s not very deforested at the moment, but for the wrong reasons: civil conflict, insecurity and lack of development. It could well be opened up and exploited in a very uncontrolled way in the near future. The challenge is to get this conservation and governance in place before this tidal wave of economic pressures wash over the Congo Basin.
Supposing these things happened across the tropical forests in the worst-case scenario, what would the effect of that be on the livelihood of most of us in the West?
'The tropical forests hold a substantial amount of biomass carbon, so the direct carbon effect on our climate is significant. But there are a lot of other aspects of tropical forest influence on climate that we understand far less about. The tropical regions are the engines of the planetary circulation. If we removed vast areas of rainforest and converted them into cattle ranches or soya bean fields, we’d probably change the water cycling of entire plant. The modelling studies that look at that suggest you’d end up affecting rainfall patterns as far away as Europe, Siberia and North America. It’s really hard to pin down exactly what would happen: it’s very hard to say with certainty if you removed forest in Eastern Amazonia then rainfall in Britain would change. But you can say that there would be consequences on a global scale.
'There are probably other aspects that we know even less about: tropical forests are important as generators of cloud, and cloud reflects sunshine into space, and in the tropics clouds act as a cooling system. We don’t really understand what the consequences would be, but it is fair to say there would be consequences.'
'The other argument I always comes back to is that we don’t have to think about it in terms of what the tropical forests do for us. The forests have value in themselves as the most spectacular celebration of what this planet is about – what it means to be on this planet. Over half of the richness of life on earth is in the tropics; it would be ethically wrong for that to disappear. The forests could largely degrade in our lifetimes, but we have a responsibility to the planet we emerged on and live on as much as we do to humans. And so to me that basic ethical argument is the most important.'
It’s a fantastic point to end on; I’m interested in what local students and residents can make of the natural environment. Can you give me the lowdown on Wytham Woods?
'We do a lot of work in Wytham. It’s interesting in itself as an object of research and partially for me it’s therapy. When I can't get to a tropical rainforest, I can poke around in there for a bit.
It’s a great place to try out ideas of what we’re trying to measure, but also to try out people. We have students do projects in Wytham, see the ones that particularly have a knack for working the field, and then encourage them to apply these ideas to more adventurous sites, further away.
Finally, I'd like to know what gives you most job satisfaction?
'On a very personal level – it’s just going out, sitting quietly, and being surrounded by rainforest. I’m always happiest in a rainforest. When I’m there I realise this is why I do what I do. Everything else seems trivial. On a broader level I love interacting with the people I work with – whether that’s my team here or the huge networks of collaborators and researchers in the wider tropical forest community. I think the tropical forest research does attract people who are slightly crazy, slightly maverick and also very good people to be with. A good test of whether you want to hire someone is whether you’d be willing to share a tent with them in a rainforest for a week. We tend to be a very social group of people and enjoy each other's company.'
To see a map of where his teams are working, have a look at gem.tropicalforests.ox.ac.uk – these are the people in the scientific social network and their posts, feeds and photos.
The Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests is a local network to bring together people from all walks of life in Oxford: academics, local businesses and government but also interested members of the public.
Wytham canopy walkway
A neat new 3D scan of an oak at Wytham Woods by Mat Disney's team from UCL. The team scanning all of our 18 ha ForestGeo research plot, where we are tracking 20,000 trees. We are increasingly interested in extracting information on tree form, mechanics and function from these images
A report on our Wytham plot is available here.
And below is a nice video explaining how information on tree structure can be extracted from these scans.
The RAINFOR consortium had a paper in Nature last week, describing the declining in the Amazon biomass carbon sink. This result is based on decades of monitoring of forest sample plots across Amazonia (particularly since the 1990s), and provides the only medium-term ground observational evidence for a carbon sink in tropical forests. Our previous work has shown the evidence for a carbon sink in Amazonian biomass (Phillips et al 1998, Science), and evidence that it briefly shut off after the 2005 drought (Phillips et al 2009, Science). The new study shows evidence of a gradual multi-decadal decline, apparently because growth stimulation has flattened out, but tree mortality rates are increasing gradually over time. The gradual nature of the increase in mortality suggests it is not driven by specific drought events, but reflects a general shortening of tree life times. On this trend the Amazon biomass carbon sink can be expected to disappear in about a decade.
The paper can be accessed here...
Brienen R.J.W. et al. (2015) Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink, Nature 519, 344–348. doi:10.1038/nature14283
We have a new paper out in Global Change Biology, the first spatial comparison of productivity and carbon cycling from our GEM plots in lowland Amazonia. The plots spread across five sites in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, spanning gradients from wet to dry, and from infertile soils in eastern Amazonia to moderately fertile soils in western Amazonia.
The GEM approach gives us insights into the full carbon budget of forests, from total photosynthesis or GPP, through its allocation to NPP or plant respiration, through the allocation of NPP to canopy, wood or fine roots, and through to biomass stocks and mortality rates. In this paper we explore to what extent these processes are simply related to each other. Can growth rates of a forest be predicted from photosynthesis rates, can biomass be predicted from growth rates?
We show that there is little simple linkage between growth and photosynthesis, because shifts in carbon use efficiencieny (the fraction of photosynthesis used for biomass growth) and the allocation of NPP matter. There is also no simple linkage between growth rates and biomass - in mature forests in Amazonia the spatial patterns in biomass are determined more by the spatial variation in tree biomass residence times (or mortality rates) matters more than variation in production. To predict biomass, we need to understand why trees die more than how trees grow. This unfortunately is a much harder challenge.
The paper represents a huge effort by GEM field teams in all three countries, who spent many weeks per month over four years collecting and processing data (and continue to do so). It was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and also the EU project GEOCARBON. The paper can be accessed below.
Malhi Y., C. E. Doughty, G. R. Goldsmith, D. B. Metcalfe, C. A. J. Girardin, T. R. Marthews, J. del Aguila-Pasquel3, L. E. O. C. Aragão, A. Araujo-Murakami, P. Brando, A. C. L. da Costa, J. E. Silva-Espejo, F. Farfán Amézquita, D. R. Galbraith, C. A. Quesada, W. Rocha, N. Salinas-Revilla, D. Silvério, P. Meir and O. L. Phillips (2015) The linkages between photosynthesis, productivity, growth and biomass in lowland Amazonian forests. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12859. Supplementary Information.
For a few days we visited the Chiquibul forest nestled in the Maya Mountains, a biodiversity hotspot in Central America. This forest is a spectacular wilderness, breathtaking for a small country such as Belize, and packed with Mayan ruins. We stayed at the Las Cuevas Research Station.
I have just returned from a visit our new project in Belize, SUSFOR. The project is funded by the Darwin Fund and is aimed at building forest monitoring capacity in Belize. I was hosted by Percy Cho, who is with the Belize Forestry Department and also a postdoc at Oxford with me for this project.
Over our visit we spanned the length and breadth of this small but astonishingly varied country, from wet rainforest to pine savanna, from smallholder farms to vast agroindustrial clearings to breathtaking wilderness.
Three things are particularly fascinating to me about Belize's forests: (1) the frequency of hurricane damage; (2) the widespread limestone bedrock leading to non-acidic tropical soils and (3) the extensive past legacy of the Mayan civilization.
The hurricane damage can be spectacular even decades after the event, as if a giant invisible hand has snapped off the tree crowns, which for many trees have resprouted in twisted and eccentric forms.
There is a new paper in Nature Geoscience that gives a unifying and elegant insight into how rainfall seasonality controls the seasonality of photosynthesis across the tropics
Guan, K., Pan M., Li H., Wolf A., Wu J., Medvigy D., Caylor K.K., Sheffield J., Wood E.F., Malhi Y., Liang M., Kimball J.S., Saleska S., Berry J., Joiner J., Lyapustin A.I., Photosynthetic seasonality of global tropical forests constrained by hydroclimate, Nature Geoscience, early online, DOI:10.1038/ngeo2382
We have just an intensive workshop of our CHAMBASA project, a busy but productive week focussed on really getting to grips with the data we had collected in Peru in 2013 , looking at the relationships between leaf properties, forest plot properties and landscapes along our transect in Peru, combining field data, theory and aircraft to tackle this question. Guests from far way included Brian Enquist from Arizona, and Greg Asner and Robin Martin from California. A real highlight was the inauguration and revelation of our database, which has been a huge amount of work.
Looking ahead, we have a follow-up in Hawaii in July, on a path to produce a special issue of papers later in the year.
We have a new paper in Nature this week (led by Chris Doughty) which demonstrates the carbon cycle influence of the 2010 Amazon drought through close monitoring of our intensive carbon cycle plots. It demonstrates the power of the intensive monitoring approach we have developed through the GEM network.
The paper is available here.
Doughty, C.E., Metcalfe, D.B., Girardin, C.A.J., Farfan Amezquita, F., Galiano Cabrera, D., Huaraca Huasco, W., Silva-Espejo, J.E., Araujo-Murakami, A., da Costa, M.C., Rocha, W., Feldpausch, T.R., Mendoza, A.L.M., da Costa, A.C.L., Meir, P., Phillips, O.L. and Malhi, Y. (2015) Drought impact on forest carbon dynamics and fluxes in Amazonia. Nature, 519: 78-82.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University