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Human-modified Tropical Forests

Tropical forest

Tropical forests are hotspots of terrestrial biodiversity. The loss, fragmentation and degradation of these forests are drivers of global biodiversity loss and have important implications for the global climate system. Uncertainty in how the tropical biosphere will respond to global change is one of the major constraints on predicting the climate of the end of this century and therefore in assessing threshold values of greenhouse gas emissions that may avoid dangerous climate change.

This research programme will integrate experimental and observational data with models to understand the role of biodiversity in major forest biogeochemical cycles, explore the spatial correlations between ecosystem function in terms of biogeochemical cycles and the distribution of species that are of conservation concern, and develop new technological capabilities for sustainable long-term observations of biogeochemical cycling in forests.

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Tropical forests are hotspots of terrestrial biodiversity. The loss, fragmentation and degradation of these forests are important drivers of global biodiversity loss.

Although remote from the UK, tropical forests are a high priority for the UK Government's international biodiversity work in the context of the 2020 targets for biodiversity agreed at the Nagoya Summit in October 2010 under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The loss of tropical forests has important implications for the global climate system, as well as a range of other ecosystem services. Deforestation is second only to the combustion of fossil fuels for energy generation as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Converting forest into alternative land-uses (particularly agriculture) has major implications for biogeochemical cycles. The net loss of carbon to the atmosphere has been well documented, but it is also becoming clear that forest conversion alters the nitrogen and water cycles and the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Changes in emissions of biogenic VOCs impact on the generation of surface pollutants such as ozone, and may change the oxidation rate of methane in the tropics. Uncertainty in how the tropical biosphere will respond to global change is one of the major constraints on predicting the climate of the end of this century and therefore in assessing threshold values of greenhouse gas emissions that may avoid dangerous climate change.

Tropical forest biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles are commonly studied in isolation. The biodiversity community has tended to focus on changes in population and community dynamics rather than the functional role biodiversity plays in ecosystem processes.

Biogeochemical cycles have tended to be studied from the perspective of physical and chemical processes, with relatively limited attention to the biological components of the system. There is an increasing need to bring these areas together, both to gain a synthetic understanding of tropical forest ecosystems, and to provide evidence for policy decisions.

At the Nagoya Summit, governments agreed that biodiversity conservation had to recognise and protect the role biodiversity plays in ecosystem services, including climate regulation. The UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD) programme is an effort to create value for the carbon stored in forests. REDD+ goes beyond deforestation and degradation to include biodiversity conservation, the sustainable management of forests and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

Integrated science that addresses both biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles is in its infancy and limited mainly to describing large-scale spatial patterns in ecosystem services and biodiversity. Significant knowledge gaps exist, particularly with respect to the role biodiversity plays in regulating biogeochemical cycles in tropical forests (including biosphere-atmosphere interactions), and the links between these processes and species that are of conservation concern, which is a key component of REDD+.

Developing the science requires integrated observations and modelling linked to gradients in forest modification (loss, fragmentation, degradation) and derived land-uses (eg agriculture). This integration is challenging. Tropical biodiversity is poorly described compared with temperate regions.

Above-below ground interactions will play a key role in regulating biogeochemical cycles. While tropical plants above ground are routinely censused other key biodiversity groups such as soil organisms and consumers are not. This means that there is a need for basic assessments (distribution, abundance, community composition) of these important groups as well as links with measurements of their functional roles. These assessments are labour intensive and technically demanding (see below for further details).

Furthermore, there are major challenges in bringing state of the art observational science associated with biosphere-atmosphere into the field. Taken together, these challenges argue against a dispersed, multi-site approach to developing the integrated science and in favour of detailed observations and measurements initially from a single site. This in itself creates a challenge concerning how data and models from a single site can be generalised to provide insights into contrasting locations across the tropics.

The aim of the proposed action is to develop a programme that provides the basis for a detailed, single site study that significantly improves our understanding of the links between biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles in tropical forest but also begins the development of approaches that explore the application of these insights in contrasting locations elsewhere. Further work is likely to be needed in this latter area beyond the proposed action with respect to differences in space and time.

The programme has five main goals:

  1. Improve our understanding of the role of biodiversity in major forest biogeochemical cycles (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus) through the integration of experimental and observational data with models linked with up-scaling studies to explore the potential regional impacts of environmental change.
  2. Explore the spatial correlations between ecosystem function in terms of biogeochemical cycles and the distribution of species of conservation concern.
  3. Critically assess the potential of forest management and policy options (eg REDD+) to protect both key ecosystem functions (biogeochemical cycles) and biodiversity.
  4. Develop and test new technological capability for sustainable long-term observations of biogeochemical cycling that may be deployed as a legacy of the programme across a range of tropical environments.
  5. Develop approaches that apply the insights gained through goals 1-4 to contrasting tropical locations.

Goals 1-4 will be addressed as part of a detailed programme of observations and measurements using the SAFE research platform in Sabah, Malaysia. This platform consists of a gradient in forest modification - old growth forest, logged forest and intensive agriculture (oil palm) with experimental forest fragments and riparian forest strips of various sizes created within a landscape that has been converted from logged forest into oil palm plantations.

It includes, therefore, an intact forest ecosystem, fragmented and degraded forest, and derived land-uses. This is important because many tropical forest areas are now forest-agriculture landscapes, and recent work, including that supported by NERC, has shown how important it is to understand the changes in biogeochemical cycles caused by forest modification.

The platform already has significant non-NERC investment (c £7·5m) that supports the core programme of observations (£6m) and some associated projects (£1·5m). This includes data and infrastructure that would be relevant to the proposed action, including above ground plant census and biomass data, forest carbon data, a flux tower for measuring biosphere-atmosphere gas exchange, and instrumentation measuring nutrients and water (eg stream sensors measuring water quality and flow).

The scale of the SAFE platform is sufficiently large to accommodate the proposed action alongside the existing core programme and associated projects; and SAFE already has in place protocols that co-ordinate the various components of its existing research programme. Using the SAFE platform, therefore, brings significant additional investment, infrastructure and research support into the proposed action.

Timing

2012 - 2017

Can I apply for a grant?

No, not at this time.

Budget

This programme has a budget of £8m.

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our live online grants browser - Grants on the Web (GOTW).

View live details of awards - external link