Report from the latest gathering of the TPWGroup

UK Tropical Peatland Working Group

Here is a short report on the latest meeting of the UK TPWG, written by Lydia Cole.

On 30th January, Prof Sue Page and Dr Sara Thornton hosted a meeting of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (UK TPWG).  An assortment of researchers gathered for one day at the University of Leicester, to present their work and discuss how the group can be more effective in the realm of tropical peatland science and responsible management.  Attendees successfully navigated the UK rail network from as far as Exeter on the south coast to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland.  The most junior member of the group had a baptism of fire as the meeting marked the first day of his PhD – well done, Abdul!

IMG-20200130-WA0005 Donna Hawthorne presenting on her palaeoecological component of the mega-CongoPeat project. (Credit: Lydia Cole.)

The day started with brief introductions from everyone present…

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A story of flaming bogs in Borneo

I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower.  Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications.  Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility.  And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means?  Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time!  All comments welcome!)

Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia.  The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature.  But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems.  Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.

One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest.  In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions.  But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?

Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years.  Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types.  Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels.  We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.

Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn.  They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires.  However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes.  Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation.  And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.

Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded.  Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory.  Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene.  But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster.  There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns.  Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.

 

*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048

 

 

Tools of the interdisciplinary trade – a workshop at #BES2019

Conservation Ecology Group

On 12th December 2019, mid-way through the British Ecology Society‘s Annual Meeting in Belfast, Althea Davies (Chair of the Palaeoecology SIG) and myself (Chair of the Conservation Ecology SIG) led a workshop entitled: Tools of the Interdisciplinary Trade: how to make your interdisciplinary project a success.  We were joined by Dr Kath Allen, a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, whom expertly facilitated the workshop.

20191212_140214[2] Workshop participants deep in interdisciplinary chat. Over 50 people come along to the lunchtime session, most of whom are currently engaged in interdisciplinary projects.  After introducing ourselves and theme of the workshop, we split everyone into four groups to discuss the main challenges they have faced in different stages of a research project.  We also, importantly, asked that they propose potential solutions to these challenges, and feed them back to the group.

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Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

The Jungle Book Part II: Still no Paddington

I return to tell a few tales of my recent stint of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project: Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands: an Interdisciplinary Challenge.

In early December, I returned to a cold and dark Scotland after two months in a warm and sunny Peru. Although, after spending weeks in mosquito-ridden swamps, it was a relief to at least leave them behind. The warmth and sunshine, less so!

Since early October, I had been based, along with Luis, another postdoctoral fellow from the University of St Andrews, and Charlotte, from the University of Edinburgh, in the central Amazonian town of Iquitos; the largest city without a road connection to the rest of the world. We spent several days there in between trips, organising the logistics, equipment and food for each period of fieldwork. All of our work is done in collaboration with, and would be impossible without, the fantastic team of ecologists and anthropologists based at IIAP (Instituto de las Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana).

This recent trip upstream to the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin was the second of two that we made as a group in 2019. I wrote a bit about the previous one here. Earlier in the year we didn’t have time to visit all of the four communities we intended to, so returned to spend time in and collect data from the final two: Nueva Pandora (on the Tigrillo tributary of the Chambira River) and Jenaro Herrera (on the larger Ucayali river). We also revisited the two communities we’d got to know back in May and June of 2019: Veinte de Enero (at the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Park) and Nueva Union (on the Chambira river), to fill in some data gaps and to train more community members in how to use a personalised data collection tool, ODK.

Six action-packed weeks were spent up-river altogether, splitting our time between each community. As before, each day involved squelching out into the surrounding wetlands. Our goal was to learn more about the types of forests that the community uses or in some way interacts with, and what the belowground environment and aboveground ecology was in each location. We were guided to areas of importance (appropriate for surveying) by a community member, seeming to effortlessly navigate the sucking swamps. Meanwhile, we would stop to tip out the sloshing aquarium in our wellies every few hundred metres! If our community guide told us it would take 30 minutes to get to a certain site, we knew it would take us double that, minimum.

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Some of the incredibly strong women in Nueva Pandora, who were carrying kilos of palm shoots that they’d just harvested in the leach-infested swamps, back to their homes 30+ minutes away, without wellies. We stood and watching in awe as we set up a plot, in wellies.

Each location contributed a new angle to the story of lowland peatland development and ecology in the Peruvian Amazon and gave us food for thought on how people use this challenging landscape. Each location also yielded a novel short-term challenge, whether it be swarms of incessant bees, mosquitos who pay no attention to clothing or repellent, thigh-deep water, buckets of water being poured down from the heavens, snake super-highways, or ants who somehow turn up in your pants. Character-building at best; madness-inducing at worst. To my surprise, I left the jungle this time with a new love of the Amazon and its many wonders.

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Bees – many and everywhere.

With the majority of the fieldwork now complete, it’s time to find out exactly what’s inside the many bags of samples that we brought back with us (peat or organic matter-rich mineral soil?) and explore the ecological and social survey data we collected. One major goal of the project is to produce a cohesive output that combines the quantitative ecological data with the qualitative social survey data, which will tell the story of the local value of the variety of wetland ecosystems in the PMFB. This will be a challenge, as is often the case in interdisciplinary work, but one that we are primed for.

Another major goal is to return to each community with the relevant results of our study and of the interactive studies that community members are carrying out with ODK, in order to enrich their knowledge, where relevant, and thus capacity to manage their relations to their environment, the people they interact with and the State.

And of course, we have to return to defend our title on the football pitch. And to find Paddington.

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Our visiting Jiiri team posing with Nueva Pandora’s home team, the Leuuakus, after a long football match (and a long day in the swamp!). I am indebted too all of these people for their help and kindness over many days in the jungle.

Sucked in (to the swamps)

About a month ago, I got back from my first ever trip to the continent of South America.  And the reason for my visit?  Peat, of course.  Here is a blog post I wrote for my new(ish) research group, the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, on my recent adventure to the “chupaderas”, or sucking swamps, of the western Amazon. 

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A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

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Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

Chambira_plot

The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot.  Spot the agile one up the tree.  Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease!  (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

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Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.

 

Learnings from an unexpected haven of tropical ecology

A few weeks back, I attended the Joint BESTEG/gtö Symposium in one of the most beautiful cities of the British Isles (now just down the road from me) with a rich history of scientific endeavour.  The British Ecological Society tends to put on a good show from my experience, and this met expectations.  The Symposium was entitled “Unifying Tropical Ecology: Strengthening Collaborative Science”; the pertinence of which was emphasised in the Welcome Address by Pierre-Michel Forget, the Society of Tropical Ecology’s (gtö) President, as we head towards a potential division within European scientific institutions that will likely impact on all nations of Europe and beyond, unless we work hard to keep connections alive.

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A picture from Calton Hill, pre-BESt jog. (Excuse the wonky angle – one of my fortes!)

There were many excellent talks, and I listened to some fascinating presentations about things I wasn’t even aware were a thing beforehand.  I thought I’d give a quick low-down on some of my top tales from the meeting (mostly so I’ve got them recorded somewhere other than in my fraying notebook).

1. Open ecosystems need the Attenborough-effect, and fast

As Professor William Bond passionately described, these are ecosystems that naturally contain areas of non-woody vegetation.  I’m sure I’ve not given his definition justice, but basically, the natural disturbance regime, coupled with climate and soil type, create an environment where trees are not the dominant vegetation type.  I was fascinated to hear William describe fire as a biological agent in these landscapes; as the “life-blood” of most of the World’s open ecosystems.  Yet, because of our preponderance for forest, and our perception that forest would dominate most ecosystems (within certain biophysical boundaries) if us humans hadn’t tampered with them, we are biased against seeing different landscape configurations, i.e. these precious open ecosystems.  We’re not “seeing” them and understanding the ‘nature’ of these open systems because we consider them to be a result of our destructive behaviour, rather than natural.  An example of this is the very recently ‘discovered’ and designated biodiversity hotspot in the USA: the North America Coastal Plain.  As explained in this article: “several myths and misconceptions prevented ecologists and conservationists from recognizing the biological importance of the NACP until now”, its uniqueness and stability, absent of anthropogenic impact.  One consequence of us not appreciating the uniqueness and importance of these ecosystems, is that we are all too ready to turn them into forests, encouraged by well-meaning, but somewhat naïve international initiatives such as The Bonn Challenge: “a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030”.  I think it’s a challenge in itself for any international initiative to avoid being naïve when it attempts to roll-out a one-size-fits-all across the globe; often in reality, one-size-fits-none (a common problem encountered with free t-shirts).  Through the impetus of the Bonn Challenge, with careful planning, millions of hectares of recently deforested land could be replanted, i.e. reforestation.  (Though see Wheeler et al.’s recent Comment pondering some of the specific challenges of the Challenge, including where all of this magical land for reforestation might be!)  Afforestation – [converting] (land) into forest, especially for commercial exploitation – is a different matter altogether and requires a lot more consideration and perhaps guidance through policy, to ensure open ecosystems are not sacrificed in the process (and indeed, peatlands).  Hmm….

2. Termites are really quite awesome

Yes, I’m late to the game on this one.  Professor Kate Parr, through a rather annoying (at the time) and unpredicted environmental disaster, found out some fascinating new facts about these amazing creatures.  A drought revealed to her and her crew that termites are more important than we previously realised in facilitating recovery in drought-disturbed forests, significantly increasing the resilience of the vegetation.  This recent paper from her group gives much more background, and justice to the important role of termites than my few sentences.  Kate ended her talk by cautioning that termites don’t seem to be able to survive in forests impacted by recurrent fire, or fire and drought, or the other forms of ‘unnatural’ disturbance common to the Anthropocene.

3. Unlike many humans, trees are taking action to respond to climate change

Emma Bush gave an excellent presentation explaining the data she has collecting that shows a reduction in leaf senescence as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, i.e. trees are holding onto their leaves for longer.  Again, there’s way more of this story to tell (and I think Emma has a few outstanding research questions she’s wanting to answer), so keep an eye out for publications from this budding expert.

4. And a few more of the cool things I learnt:

  • Trees don’t get on well without neighbours, as demonstrated by Isabel Jones, showing results of reduced regeneration of trees on islands created by the construction of mega-dams; more info here. I wondered what impact these dams were also having on the fauna of the now-fragmented landscape and consequently on seed dispersal for the trees, e.g. are they creating “silent forests”?  But I sadly couldn’t find her at coffee to ask!  Neat work.
  • Talking of seed dispersal, Professor Kim McConkey, gave a really interesting plenary on the role of megafauna in seed and fruit evolution in the Tropics, and indeed the mysteries that still remain on that front. An impressive piece of detective work, involving many people over many years, as told in part here.
  • Various presentations made me realise that the impact of drought on the vegetation of the forested Tropics is complex (yes, late to the game there too!). Different environmental and interacting factors make for a wide array of (sometimes unpredictable) responses of vegetation to the disturbance of drought.  And ‘drought’ itself is a different beast in different ecosystems: one man’s drought is another man’s shower….or something like that.
  • You can learn all sorts of things when you start a new project, or when an old project gets a bit fruity, with many outcomes being far from any hypotheses you might have scribbled down (sometimes post-hoc!)….if you keep your eyes and mind open!
  • Having an early morning jog, around a beautiful city, with a bunch of other hungover ecologists, is a very great idea.

Thanks to the BES, and everyone else who joined in the fun.

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Having fun with Project Awesome Edinburgh, at sunrise, on Calton Hill. They meet there every Wednesday. Well worth joining in.