Forests 2020 – New Rainforest Conservation Software Win

A Scotland-based business has just netted a £14m contract to help protect tropical forests with their clever new satellite data. The company is called Ecometrica, head quartered in Edinburgh, and their software is the first to be able to interpret satellite imagery at high speed. This means researchers can pick up on threats like illegal logging and encroaching agriculture before it’s too late, a really important development for rainforest conservation.

Ecometrica wins a UK Space Agency contract

The UK Space Agency has offered the contract, and inventors Ecometrica are soon set to start work with experts in six more countries – Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico – to help protect threatened ecosystems and direct conservation efforts and resources. The project is called ‘Forests 2020’ and is set to improve rainforest management and protection across a whopping 300 million hectares of tropical forest.

Bringing in extra expertise

Ecometrica will be sub-contracting experts from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester as well as another Edinburgh-based company called Carbomap. The funding comes courtesy of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, which is designed to join the dots between British space knowledge, undeveloped nations and developing economies.

Making a real difference on the ground

It’s hoped that the initiative will make a real difference to the people on the ground working to preserve the world’s forests, which are crucial to the survival of the world’s ecosystem and ultimately to our survival . The Earth Observation platforms will detect threats like fires and illegal logging faster, which in turn will make on-the-ground response quicker, cheaper and more effective.

An early spring means trees use up crucial soil nitrogen too early

Apparently forests use up the nitrogen in soil faster during the typically earlier, greener springs we’re getting thanks to climate change. And it’s affecting trees in unusual ways.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has found that our fast-warming climate is causing earlier springs and later autumns in the USA’s vast eastern forests. This in turn makes the growing season longer, and changes the way forests work.

More demand for nitrogen means trees run out of food before autumn

It looks like earlier springs increase the trees’ demand for nitrogen, which means fewer leaves later in the growing season as well as early, pre-fall leaf loss. Trees use up more nitrogen in these early springs than the soil contains naturally, which in turn affects the amount of CO2 they’re able to remove from the air.

The positive side – Might this mean cleaner water?

The researchers harnessed a blend of satellite images and field measurements to reveal trees’ extra demand for soil nitrogen during early springs. The good news is that a bigger demand for nitrogen might mean less nitrogen finding its way into lakes, rivers and streams. The trouble is, earlier springs mean there isn’t enough nitrogen in the soil to ‘feed’ the trees throughout the elongated growing season.

Affecting forest growth rates

The scientists studied 222 trees, broken into three species, in Prince William Forest Park, Harpers Ferry Historical Park, Catoctin Mountain Park and Great Smoky Mountains Park, studying three decades of satellite imagery and comparing it with wood production and wood chemistry data.

While forest growth rates aren’t slowing down quite yet, they are not as good as they might be if there was enough nitrogen in the soil to last the full season

Article on behalf of The Rainforest Foundation.

Rainforest ‘defaunation’ contributes to climate change

Many people feel it’s no surprise that removing big creatures from the equation ruins the natural balance of a forest. It makes common sense. Now we have the evidence to back it up.

Everyone’s heard of deforestation. But what about defaunation? New research shows how the extinction of large animals from rainforests could help drive climate change to horrific new heights.

Decline in big forest creatures fuels climate change

According to a team from the University of East Anglia, São Paulo State University in Brazil, UEA, the Spanish National Research Council and the University of Helsinki, the research reveals how a decline in larger fruit-eating animals like primates and tapirs will have a negative knock-on effect on trees, and on global warming.

It’s a seed thing…

Big fruit eating animals like primates are brilliant at spreading seeds far and wide, and they’re particularly good at dispersing seeds from plants and trees with big seeds. Because these trees often feature dense wood, they’re better at capturing CO2 than smaller trees. Ergo, the fewer big tree seeds are spread and the fewer new trees grow, the worse the effect on climate change.

In rainforests, the larger mammals and birds are almost wholly responsible for spreading large seeds. At the same time they’re being threatened by illegal trade, hunting and the loss of natural habitats. The resulting steep decline in forest fauna is already having an effect. The remaining small birds and mammals, which aren’t hunted, can only carry and spread small seeds from smaller trees.

Large animals are vital for rainforests’ future health

The study proves the decline and extinction of large animals eventually drives a decline in large hardwood trees, studying data from over 2000 species of tree and more than 800 animal species in the beautiful Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

The findings highlight the importance of intergovernmental policies to not just cut carbon emissions, but also halt the trade in large rainforest creatures, who hold an equally important key to the forests’ long term health.

Greenpeace Reveals China’s Giant Panda Sanctuary Shame

Greenpeace East Asia has been investigating in China for two years. Now their findings have been revealed, and it’s shocking stuff. It looks like China’s precious, world-class Giant Panda Sanctuaries are being decimated by illegal loggers.

3200 acres of official panda-friendly rainforest gone

Sichuan province has lost around 3200 acres of natural forest to illegal loggers. Greenpeace’s conclusions are damning: loopholes in China’s already weak forestry regulations are to blame. It lets commercial organisations get rid of so-called low function natural forest in favour of plantations, but the rules are so ambiguous that it’s easy to get away with cutting down good quality natural forest.

The famous Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries are a series of seven reserves plus nine scenic parks. A third of the world’s giant pandas live there. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which makes the extent of the large-scale illegal logging even more shocking.

Experts say the entire area should be strictly protected. Fewer than 2000 wild pandas remain in the world, and this widespread deforestation is threatening their last remaining habitat.

The wider effects of deforestation

The panda is a high-profile animal because it’s so endearing. Everyone loves a panda. But it’s only one of countless fascinating and unique creatures relying on these forests. As we’ve reported before, eating away at the fringes of rainforests and creating gaps in the middle of natural forest damages much more than the plants and trees cut down. It also damages trees and plants in the immediate area of the deforestastion and beyond.

Drought kills mature trees faster

Drought is a forest-killer. The death of large tree has a particularly dramatic impact on the ecosystem and also affects the climate, since trees play such a vital part in the carbon cycle. Scientists have long suspected that the death of big trees has a bigger effect on global warming then small trees dying, but now the theory has been proved once and for all.

New research by the Los Alamos National Laboratory reveals how drought affects mature trees much more than smaller new trees, with less growth and less chance of long term survival.

A team of researchers studied the world’s forests, everything from semi-arid woodlands to steamy tropical  rainforests and cloud forests, to find out how a tree’s size affects its drought response. In total they studied a massive 40 drought events in 38 different forest locations, systematically reviewing the worldwide ratio of tree size to tree death for the first time.

Why do big trees matter so much?

  • Living trees soak up and store CO2 but dying trees release it. Instead of being a place where carbon is safely sequestered, a damaged forest can become a frighteningly efficient carbon source
  • Big trees also release more water than small ones, cooling the land and supporting the formation of clouds. Once this fine natural balance is disturbed, the whole thing starts to fall apart
  • Mature trees also play a vital role in supporting biodiversity, creating environments all sorts of essential and fascinating animals and plants depend
  • Big trees are more vulnerable since it’s more difficult for them to find and transport the water and nutrients they need to their leaves. Worse still, tall trees with crowns high up in the rainforest canopy are exposed to higher solar radiation
  • In every seasonal tropical forests the team looked at, the growth rate of under-story trees increased when there was less water available, especially so when their bigger relatives lost leaves when stressed by drought

The effects on climate change?

In a final salvo the researchers pointed out that the worldwide consequences of damaged forest ecosystems, less biodiversity and a spiralling carbon cycle will be “great”.

We have to assume there’s a tipping point, a time at which it’s too late to reverse things, when climate change runs away with us. Let’s hope we manage to sidestep that, or the human race will be in a whole world of trouble.

Article by The Rainforest Foundation.


Drought-driven tree health risk lasts a decade

We already know droughts damage trees. But according to a study by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, drought can reduce trees’ long term survival for as long as a decade after the drought ends. The study hopes to give forest managers and scientists a way to spot and deal with drought-led damage before it’s too late, a vital tool in any rainforest conservationist’s kit.

Long term drought damage revealed

Aaron Berdanier, a Ph.D. student in forest ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, headed up the research, identifying the tree species at highest risk and the varied environmental factors that affect the likelihood of survival. He and his team looked at around 29,000 trees across two special research forests in North Carolina and were surprised to find that the damage is so unpredictable and long-term. It’s the first ever study into drought damage that actually shows declines in tree growth during a drought dramatically cutting tree survival in the long term.

A quiet decline just as deadly as dramatic tree die-offs

It looks like the damage suffered by trees during a drought sets a quiet decline in place, which can last years and kill them way down the line.

Trees slow down the growth process when there’s a drought, decreasing their ability to take up Carbon, therefore their ability to stay alive. If a tree is too weak to reverse the loss, it gets unhealthy and eventually dies. But the decline is much slower than anyone previously thought, and the long-term impacts can be just as severe as the more dramatic tree die-offs we occasionally see. In fact the study quantifies things to an alarming degree, showing how 72% of the trees affected by drought and unable to recover their natural equilibrium died within 10 years.

The results show that a tree’s long-term mortality risk increases when its cumulative diameter growth falls below 54% percent of the growth of nearby trees of the same species. And the effect happens across all species.

The good news…

Luckily the research also highlights the symptoms of future death, great news when climate change is making droughts more common and more extreme in some places. Again on the bright side, it looks like thinning out competing trees around a drought-affected tree can cut the death risk.

Knowing what to look for means the longer term affects of drought can me mitigated, and knowing how to mitigate the damage makes a huge difference to tree survival, in a world where every tree lost is a tragedy.

University of Montana reveals forest canopy’s role in climate change mitigation

If you didn’t think plant life was capable of altruism, think again. When temperatures rise, less rain falls. And rainforests respond, protecting young trees from drought and heat by providing shade.

Mature trees protect their offspring to a surprising degree

Adult trees’ deeper roots are better able to cope with heat and drought than young trees, but the computer models we currently use to predict how forests will respond to climate change don’t take the difference between young and mature trees into consideration.

Research by Solomon Dobrowski at the University of Montana reveals how climate change buffering by forest canopies is a vital consideration if we want to accurately predict future rainforest regeneration.

A forest with no young trees is a dying forest

Dobrowski and colleagues examined where juvenile trees are found compared to mature same-species trees and looked at potential changes under the hotter, drier climates we expect the climate of the future climate to deliver.

The team already suspected canopies may protect juvenile trees from some of the limiting factors that kill them, for example high winds. It makes sense. But the team’s projections also suggest young trees fare better under a protective forest canopy, and removing the canopy makes them suffer. The eventual outcome – forests with no juvenile trees surviving – is grim, since a forest without new trees is a dying forest.

Identifying areas where young trees are most likely to thrive

The difference between the condition and health of young and mature trees of the same species are most pronounced when it’s hottest and driest. In particularly dry habitats, juvenile trees grow best in the wettest areas. Shade-tolerant trees and juvenile trees are also happier in cooler settings. It might seem obvious but now it’s proven.

The findings should help scientists and conservationists predict what the future holds for western forests, allowing them to better compare where young and mature trees are happiest via the “unique insights” the research reveals.

Article on behalf of The Rainforest Foundation.