In September 2018 I had the opportunity to visit Pleistocene Park, and project in the far north-east Siberian Arctic (with my colleagues Marc Macias-Fauria and Paul Jepson), where large wild animals are being introduced in an attempt to shift the existing tundra into an extinct ecosystem, the mammoth steppe.
The landscape of the region is vast and sparsely populated, one of northern taiga larch forests grading into willow tundra, and interspersed with innumerable thermokarst lakes. In September the deciduous larch forests blazed a brilliant gold, framed by red alder and birch understory.
The landscape is littered with relics of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when this remote high Arctic region was heavily depopulated and abandoned.
Our base is the wonderful North East Science Station, sitting on the banks of the river and centred on an abandoned TV satellite station. It provided good food, genial company, bountiful supply of coffee, chocolates (and vodka!), and a sauna by the river bank. On the nights around my birthday the night sky was laced with vast shimmering auroral storms.
At places such as Duvany Yar, the permafrost-frozen river banks erode into the meandering Kolyma River. High banks of carbon-rich yedoma soils are exposed, the result of slow-frozen accumulation of thousands of years of plant productivity.
Walking along the beach, a surprisingly large number of large bones pop out: horse, bison, rhinoceros and mammoth, frozen in the Pleistocene tens of thousands of years ago. From transects of the beach it is possible to work out the density of these numbers, and the numbers are high. The landscape was a northern Serengeti, rich in mammoths, bison, horses, camels bears and lions, all deriving food and nutrition from a highly productive grassland. Yet all this occurred in the high Arctic during the ice ages. How was such a cold climate able to support such high productivity and biomass? The hypothesis underpinning Pleistocene Park is that it was the animals that made the steppe ecosystem, bu accelerating the nutrient cycle many hundredfold through eating and egestion.
Pleistocene Park is an attempt to rebuild this lost grassland ecosystem. Sergey and Nikita Zimov have introduced a range of large and cold-tolerant mammals, including horses, yaks, bison, sheep, musk oxen, local reindeer and soon cattle. In fenced patches where the grazing in intense, the system is shifting into a grassy willow savanna. By the lake floodplains are grasslands that provide vital and reliable grazing lands while the system is in transition.
This experiment it not just about animals and ecosystems. A key hypothesis is that the high biomass of animals would have trampled with winter snow layer, preventing it from being an insulating blanket, and thereby freezing the soils deeper in winter. This is turn would reduce the risk and depth of summer melt. As the regional climate warms, this may be a key tool to keep the carbon-rich soils frozen, and thereby preventing a dangerous feedback on climate change.
Thank you to Nikita Zimov and his family and staff for hosting us with endless good humour and many tales. Thanks to the Oxford University John Fell Fund and the School of Geography and the Environment for supporting this visit.
I spent a week in January 2018 at the Congreso Futuro (Congress of the Future) in Chile. I has never heard of this event when I was invited a few months ago, and I confess my interest was initially piqued by the prospect of a trip to Antarctica. However, in being here and experiencing the whole Congress I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and also found it an interesting and impressive attempt at popularisation and democratisation of science (and many ideas beyond the sciences) that merits some reflection.
The core of the event is a week of TED-style talks in Santiago, in the magnificent building of the former Congress. This year the broad theme of the meeting was “Tome Consciencia Hoy” (become conscious now) and there is a very pro-active future-looking theme to the whole meeting. Many of the talks are celebrations and discussions of the new scientific discoveries (from exoplanets to graphene to precision medicine) but there is also a broad environment theme (from raising alarms on topics ranging from the state of the oceans and climate or the risks of agricultural antibiotics to new approaches and technologies to dealing with these issues). Unlike many standard science festivals, there is also a fascinating disruptive edge to some of the talks, with a number of speakers questioning our economic system and social values, exploring new ways of organising democratic societies, or challenging the nature of the online world as it has been shaped thus far.
The events in Santiago are only part of the story. All through the week speakers are sent to around twelve regional centres across Chile, to participate in similar style local events. As an example, on the Monday I was in lovely Punta Arenas in Magallanes, near the southern end of Chile, together with three other speakers, at a wonderfully organised event speaking to an audience of around 200 and participating in panel discussions. The meeting audience ranged from the regional Senator and Presidential Representative (who both spoke) through to the general public and a host of school children. In the afternoon we circulated around groups of school children, answering questions about lives and careers in science, and the nature of the scientific process.
What is most impressive is the amount of effort put in to making the event accessible and to engage the wider public. All events are free to attend and overall around around 40,000 people directly attended events around the country. They are also professionally livestreamed (with around 2.1 million viewers) and heavily covered on national TV, and follow-up programmes are built from the material and broadcast on TV throughout the year, to keep the meeting and its content in the public discourse. There is strong political support, with both the President and President-Elect (of opposite parties) speaking at the opening ceremony, and the key dinner of the week hosted by the President in the La Moneda palace. The Senate has played a key role in originating and supporting the concept over the years, although now there is also substantial (perhaps almost all) funding from sponsors.
As guest speakers you are very well looked after. Smiley and helpful student guides are assigned to each speaker and there to help with every logistical issue - my guide Bastian was just great) - the main requirements to be accepted as a guide seems to be good grades and language skills. The field trips before the meeting (to either Antarctica/Patagonia or to the Atacama Desert and its mountain astronomical observatories) are just spectacular (and certainly a cunning strategic bait to attract many key thinkers to Chile to an event they may never have heard of), and there are a range of wonderful events and receptions throughout the week. The trips also served as a chance to get to know and really bond with the organisers and other speakers, which played a valuable role in taking away the potential anonymity of such a broad ranging and disparate meeting.
At a time when some national horizons seem to be retreating in vision and evidence-based thinking is questioned as being mere ideology, it is remarkable to see such a high-level celebration of knowledge, evidence and critical thinking, and questioning of the status quo, and moreover one played out on a national stage and with such strong political support. It is also remarkable that a middle-income nation, Chile, is leading the way and punching well above its weight. In terms of engaging a nation in thinking about where the future is going and what kind of future we wish to have, and I have not come across any other event operating at a national scale and at this level. There are lessons to be learnt in many nations (whether existing or emerging scientific powers) from the Congress of the Future. I wish it well, and may it contribute to raising a new generation of thinkers and questioners in Chile, and to shaping the regional global discussion on what kind of future we are heading towards and what kind of future we want.
I have spent the last week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. I was invited by the European Research Council (as a current grantee), to present some of my work on climate change and tropical forest conservation and tipping points. My initial reaction to the invitation was some trepidation - media coverage and reference to “the self-congratulating elites of Davos” governing the world detached from the concerns of the wider world had pre-shaped my perceptions. But I was also very curious, and excited to have the chance to peer into the dynamics of this extraordinary invitation-only gathering of a few thousand people in this lovely Alpine valley, and see what role there was for science and environmentalism in its deliberations.
The hotels for Davos are booked up well in advance, and so I stayed in a wonderful AirBnB chalet perched high up on a slope of the valley, together with my fellow invitee Maja Schleuter from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. When it was first booked we had not quite appreciated that getting there involved a 40 minute hike up a mountain in pitch darkness through deep snow and forest. But being perched in silence on the edge of the valley gave a valuable moment for reflection at the start and end of each day, and I really looked forward to this crunchy snowy hike at the end of a full day of conversations and ideas. Every morning from my snowy mountain perch I could nurse a coffee and gaze down on what is probably one of the greatest concentrations of power and influence (political, financial, commercial) in human history. The valley held not only on the powerful and the wealthy, but also on a host of campaigners, researchers and thinkers trying to understand and shape a better world. As the week progressed more helicopters buzzed in and out (particularly after Thursday when Donald Trump and his vast entourage arrived), soldiers patrolled the slopes and armed guards and X-ray security were found at every hotel entrance.
I wanted to peek into the workings of this week in this secluded Alpine valley, to get some understanding of how this concentration of power and influence worked, of what reactions were catalysed by this concentration. Did and could this concentration lead to new ways of shaping the world and humanity’s place in it in positive ways? In a few days I could not hope to answer my questions in any depth, but I would hope to come away with some insight. I discovered immediately that Davos is vast and multi-layered, and one week probably left me with only the most cursory of first impressions, but I’ll try and put my thoughts down here.
Davos is concentric rings of access. I was a white badge holder (thanks to the ERC), which enabled me to attend all events in the magnificent main conference centre (an elegant building with many wonderful spaces – probably amongst the finest meeting spaces I have every encountered), but not to access private lounges for the paid members. Associated companies pay at least 70,000 euros for the right to be affiliated to the WEF and attend Davos, but about a third of invitees (mainly from academia or civil society) attend for free. The Conference Centre is where the main plenary keynotes (e.g. speeches by world leaders) took place, but also there were a host of meeting rooms, many very innovative in design such as the Ideas Lab (build around small table discussions), the Science Hub (a goldfish bowl where I could make presentations to around 30 people while the main conference talked and met just outside) and the Global Situation Space and Situation Area, which featured massive map and stunning screens which could be manipulated by the presenter, and which could not be ignored by any passing delegate. There was an endless supply of free coffee and smoothies, and coffee areas packed with delegates staring and swiping through their smartphones as obsessed as teenagers at the school gate. Special Virtual Reality Artworks in the hallways offered transport into the world of an Amazonian shaman, a Holocaust survivor or a new pandemic outbreak.
The Global Situation Space was one of the wonderful spaces to explore and understanding mapping data. This image shows areas of income decline in recent years in the USA - a factor that was to lead to recent political earthquakes. It was located in the main meeting area, and almost impossible for any attendee to ignore
Outside the conference centre there was a greater Davos amongst the array of large hotels and rented-out shops stretched out along the Promenade. In addition to some core conference events, these hosted a large range of side events, network events, café meeting spaces and evening receptions that were open to a much wider range of participants (though all seemed need some level of pass and security check). This was also where to find many attendees who did not have the much-envied white passes needed for the Congress Hall.
I was impressed and how many of the events did try to deal with sustainability and equity issues. On a flick through the programme I would estimate 25-35% were on such issues, another third where on assessments of the economics and prospects for particular regions, and others were more futurist, examining the potential and influence of emerging or future technologies, the prospects and threats of artificial intelligence, biotech or blockchain. This was much more of a thinkfest, an exploration of ideas, than I had anticipated, and I got to see or interact with some of my favourite authors or thinkers like Steven Pinker ("Better Angels of our Nature", etc) and Yuval Harari ("Sapiens", "Homo Deus"). It felt like a Hay Book Festival and UN General Assembly thrown together.
In parallel to this thinkfest, there was the corporate or political networking, in hallways or meeting spaces with the Conference Centre, and even more so in the hotels and bars along the Promenade. These areas witnessed a frenzied exchange of contact information, of searching for new business opportunities.
On top of all these events sat the big plenary showcases, the speeches by major world leaders. This year was kicked off by Narendra Modi (very much sending the message that “India has arrived”), various moments filled by Justin Trudeau, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Michel Temer, Theresa May and others, and rounded off by Donald Trump, who the delegates lined up to see with morbid fascination and disdain. I kept my antenna open for mention of climate change, and was impressed how much it featured in India’s message (Macron was the other main leader who made a major mention of it). These showcase events were fascinating, but their scale and anonymity meant there was little value gained over watching the same speeches on livestream. My interest and social curiosity was driven much more by the myriad of smaller events.
A key question for me was how many opportunities were there for intersection and connection between these parallel groups? Or did the academics and NGOs mainly end up talking among themselves while the CEOs and politicians talked elsewhere. I found out that there were a surprising number of points of interaction. Many meetings and talks were set up in formats that made it fairly easy interact in small groups around tables. At one of my presentations, the Ideas Hub, the talk and Q&A were followed by the speakers joining small group tables for follow-up conversation. Another very fruitful format was evening dinners with structured conversations, which allowed for more in-depth explorations and conversations than brief conversations in wine receptions.
The ERC looked after us well, and was keen to showcase the importance of Pan-European Science, in the context of the next long-term funding plans being drawn up and the uncertainty that Brexit throws up for British involvement in European science. I found myself drawn into several strategic conversations on this. The WEF staff also looked after us well, ensuring that as academics that we felt involved and welcome in this complex and somewhat daunting space.
I ended my week in Davos with a mainly favourable impression of what the World Economic Forum was trying to do. I saw a real effort to inject new conversations and perspectives about equity and sustainability into the proceedings of the event, and a genuine attempt to give opportunities of showcasing and exchange of ideas. Whether these efforts deliver in the medium term is hard to tell. But, as one example, every day I bumped into my colleague Kate Raworth moving tirelessly from event to event, presenting and promoting her ideas on doughnut economics to rethink the basis and fundamentals of the global economy. Her ability to use this forum to stimulate and harangue everyone from political leaders to social innovators to Nobel Laureates in Economics was one of the examples of what made Davos special, and how it is possible to really engage and use the opportunity to reach an audience that at most other times is out of reach.
As part of being a visiting speaker at the fantastic #CongresoFuturo2018 in Chile (a supercharged week of TED-style talks and events across Chile), I was invited to take a pre-meeting trip to the Chilean Frei base in Antarctica, hosted by the Chilean air force and navy. For over a month I have been excited at this unique chance to visit the seventh continent, and spent much of Christmas reading about the history and science of the continent.
A group of around 20 visitors, accompanied by navy officers and senators and cadets, made the journey using an Hercules C-130. At Punta Arenas, near the southern top if South America, we slip into cold weather gear, leaving our main luggage behind, get weighed (together with our hand luggage), get a briefing and then head out into the bright sun towards the awaiting grey behemoth of a Hercules C-130. We climb in and line up along benches. The interior is red strapping, a high ceiling above exposing the internal mechanics. There is a heavy odour of aviation fuel. The wide ramp at the rear pulls up. The engines roar into action, we plug in our earphones, and off we go. TThe bare landscapes of northern Tierra del Fuego give any to jagged snowy peaks cut through by narrow channels and fjords of the far southern tip of the Americas. Then a few small and snowy islands and we are out over the Drake Passage.
Over the next two hours the Drake Passage gets cloudier as we approach Antarctica. The lumbering Hercules descends through the clouds, then suddenly the view clears and I glimpse the wind-tortured sea, a few barren islands an before we know it we are on the jagged black runway.
We leave the plane and are greeted by individual handshakes by a line of Air Force officers and cadets. The landscape around is rocky black volcanic mud-rock, interspersed with sheet patches of snow. A strong wind is driving harsh hail into our faces. After a welcome, an group photo and a tour of the quite comfortable science station, we are quite disappointed to learn that the bad weather (the hail has now morphed into horizontal snow) means we cannot go by boat to the ice-breaker ship for a tour of the coast (either by zodiac boat or by helicopter) as we had planned. Rather than hang around too much in cosy rooms, I go for some solo walks along the coast
There is a beauty in the harshness. Navy officers wrestle to bring a zodiac in and bail it out as the wind has blown in blocks of ice that now rim the shore until 10 metres out. Large dark brown skuas glide hungrily overhead and occasionally settle to tear at the yellowed seaweed. Further out I spot a number of mini-icebergs, distinguished by their odd contoured shapes a sharp and gorgeous turquoise colour amid a grey sea and sky. I trail some chinstrap penguins. There is no hint of ground vegetation. I gaze out south, breathing in the harsh but pure air, and imagine the vast and empty continent that lies in front. There are glimpses of neighbouring peaks and jagged rock formations. It is peak mid-summer, at the mildest tip of the content, and I get a sense of how harsh Antarctica can be. The cold wind and snow chill me deep inside, but I feel on awe of briefly sensing the harsh heart of this extreme continent. We did not get a boat trip, but we got to briefly glimpse, feel and breathe the beautiful, severe soul of this harshest and wildest continent, to briefly pay respect by merely touching its toe.
A day last July, signing a 357-year old parchment charter, joined by my parents and sister and brother-in-law, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (for Improving Natural Knowledge...)
We are planning to host the European Conference of Tropical Ecology in the UK in April 2019, jointly supported by the British Ecological Society Tropical Ecology Group (BES-TEG), the European Society for Tropical Ecology (GTOE) and the European Group of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC). We are embarking on an open solicitation process to find a venue to host this exciting event. Please find further details by clicking here here.
My review on the concept of the Anthropocene has just been published in Annual Reviews in Environment and Resources. I explore the history of the concept, how it is used in disciplines ranging from the Earth system sciences, geology, ecology, social sciences and in the wider cultural sphere, and how useful it is a way of describing the modern environmental challenge.
Malhi, Y. (2017) The concept of the Anthropocene. Annual Reviews in Environment and Resources, Vol. 42, 2017, pp. 77–104
Visiting our forest plots in BelizeOne day in Belize on my way to the ATBC conference in Mexico, and I do a quick inspection of our intensive monitoring plots in Belize in the company of Elma Kay and Denver Cayetano of the Environmental Research Institute of the University of Belize. As part of a Darwin-funded project (with Percy Cho, who I catch up with in the evening), we have four intensively monitored plots, two in logged forest at Hillbank, and two La Cuevas nested in the mountains near the Guatemalan border.
We visit one of the Hillbank plots. The drive over to Hillbank is through a mixed landscape of forests, smalls farms and then, as we near Hillbank, extensive areas of land recently cleared for corn and bean farming by highly mechanised Mennonite farmers. Elma recounts with passion the struggles of conservation in the Belizean landscape, and the need to work with large farmers to promote sustainability and biodiversity across the whole landscape. “Belize is such a small country. We should be able too make sustainability work here. If we cannot make it work here, what chance to we have in larger countries?”
It is startling to see the mechanisation and homogeneity cutting swathes through this rich forest landscape. Vast expanses of corn and beans where rich forest stood only five years ago. The forest looks quiet skeletal and picked apart in places. However, this is not due to the (relatively low impact) logging, but because of the hurricanes that steamroller through these systems every few years (the last strong one was just last August). This means the forest species are adapted to frequent and intense disturbance, and may be quite resilient to logging, more than tropical forests in less disturbed areas. Elma argues forcefully that it is the logging approach that Belize has developed (reduced impact longing with long rotations between logging) that protects these private land forests by giving them value - the alternative is often conversion to intense farming, for which there is high demand for land.
We arrive at the plot and a cloud of mosquitoes quickly gathers. The forest is hurricane-disturbed, with some fallen trees and many tree crowns ripped off, but also comes across as extremely dynamic and fertile. This may be a combination of the limestone soils and the high disturbance rate. While we are in the plot an intense rainstorm announces itself with a near-overhead flash of lightning. The rain is intense and soaking, but provides welcome relief from the mosquitoes. After a long plane journey it feels good to be so elemental, trudging through dense forest with water cascading over me.
Denver shows me the measurements he has been doing tracking the carbon dynamics of the plots, including measuring tree growth, leaf and root production, and carbon fluxes from soils and stems. It is great to see these new sites in operation, and we make plans to extend the measurements for another year, to provide enough data for Denver to work up into papers. In the context of our global network, these plots provide a unique combination of limestone soils, an ancient Mayan legacy on the landscape and frequent hurricane events. Working out how these various factors shape the functioning and composition of these forests and their resilience to disturbance and global change will be quite a challenge!
We have just completed the installation of tree water use measuring equipment at the Bobiri field site in Ghana. This is one of our key intensively monitored sites which run in a wet-dry gradient in Ghana, from wet rainforest to woody savanna. Bobiri sits in the middle of the transect, a patch of forest reserve just east of Kumasi and conveniently close to the Forest Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG). With our FORIG colleagues we have been monitoring the carbon cycle of this forest in detail for the last five years, and have shown it to be the most productive tropical forest we have ever monitored. We are still trying to puzzle out why this site is so productive.
I am with Lucy Rowland from Exeter University (who has worked on studying water flow in a drought experiment in Brazil for many years) and our Ghanaian colleagues Stephen Adu-Bredu, Akwasi Duah Gyamfi, Mickey Boakye and Patrick.
Now, with the installation of water flux sensors, we are adding an understanding of the use of water by different trees. Our main measurements are done using sap flow sensors, which measure water flow (transpiration) through the stem by looking at the rate of dissipation of heat injected into the tree via electrodes. The more sap flow, the faster the dissipation. Installation involves hammering electrodes into the tree (often perched precariously on a ladder in the case of large buttressed trees).
Initial data suggest phenomenal levels of water flow through these trees, much higher than we have seen at previous work in eastern Amazonia. This may be related to the high productivity and fertility that we see at the Ghana site, with the fast growth rates requiring high water use, at least in the wet season. These are amongst the first (and maybe the very first) sap flow measurements in the wet tropical forests of Africa, and there is much to learn in the coming years.
A wonderful June day, and we have a Biodiversity cluster day out to Windsor Great Park, the expansive grounds of Windsor Castle. Our hosts are Ted Green, the wonderfully indomitable and opinionated ecologist of the park (picture below), and Jonathan Spencer from the Forestry Commission. Ted has played a major role in bringing some ecology-focussed management to the park.
The park has been managed as a royal hunting ground and private estate since the Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago, and was a Saxon hunting ground before then.
We started off by looking at some wonderfully ancient oak trees that are around one thousand years old (the dating is very approximate). These are amongst the oldest broadleaf trees in Northern Europe (coniferous yew trees can frequently be older). The oaks are withered and often hollowed out by heart wood decay, but still very much alive and hosting a wonderful array of biodiversity. Ted argues that the hollowing out actually increases the likelihood of surviving high wind speed events (something he observed after the Great Storm of 1987), and may also be a strategy to recycle nutrients locked away in heartwood.
Beyond the ancient trees, another focus of interest was the role that large animals play in shaping ecosystems (something I talked about at the ZSL Raffles lecture last week). There is a vigorous debate about how the presence of large animals "opened up" closed forests into a woodland-glade mosaic. These would have been aurochs and bison in the early Holocene before they were hunted out, and even elephants and rhinoceros in the previous interglacial, before the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions.
In Windsor there has been some implementation of these ideas, with an old breed of magnificent longhorn cattle left free to roam through some woodland pastures. The resulting ecosystem of open woodland glades and some magnificent ancient trees is just magical. Ted emphasises again and again how important it is to maintain and conserve soil diversity and function in these systems.
Thank you Ted and Jonathan for a magnificent day of insight, exploration and sheer admiration of these wonderful trees and ecosystems.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University