Still time….Before the Flood?

This time last week I was feeling a strange mixture of distraught, angry and empowered.  The latter emotion primarily because nothing else seemed to be very important anymore, compared to the task in hand, i.e. sorting out the mess we’re rapidly making of our planet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch Before the Flood.  It is an honest, hugely powerful portrayal of the challenges we’re facing with living “sustainably” on Earth, conveyed through the eyes of a very talented and passionate environmentalist*.  As UN Messenger of Peace for the Climate, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world for two years, observing the impact we are having on it, from the melting of the Arctic ice sheets to the burning of the peatlands of Southeast Asia.  It’s as beautiful as it is harrowing.

There are so many different ways we’re doing damage to the natural and semi-natural environments of this world; in some circumstances with a (dwindling) level of ignorance of the impacts and in some cases with full knowledge (and abandon) of them.  Hypocracy Money rules.  Trump got in.  The burning continues.

If we don’t all consider what’s going on out there, how we’re contributing to it, how we’re implicated in it (it is in our back yard) and tell the people above us that we care, the ecosystems on which we completely depend will continue to go to s**t.

Please watch it.

*As much as a multi-billionnaire (I presume, since millionnaires are old hat) can be an environmentalist….but he doesn’t shy away from the incongruities/inevitable hypocricy.  (If only a few more of the celebrity billionaires out there were as useful as this great chap.)

Peat’s muddy past

Today, at some point, the Special Feature on Forest resilience, tipping points and global change processes will be published by the Journal of Ecology.  With some tweeking, I managed to get an article accepted in it, showcasing the work I presented at the symposium of the same name at INTECOL, back in 2013.  And here is the article I wrote to accompany it, freshly posted on the Journal’s blog.

Unashamedly, this post is all about peat!  More on Tanzania very soon though, when I find time in between Christmas preparations and gluttony.


What is so special about peat?  To the untrained eye, these ecosystems appear as desolate swamps, with limited value, biodiversity- or other-wise.  To the seasoned wetland ecologist, the more apt question is what isn’t special about peat?  These long-neglected ecosystems are vital reservoirs of fresh water for us thirsty humans; they contain ten times as much carbon as all of the world’s forests, whilst occupying only 3% of the Earth’s surface; and house a rich diversity of species found nowhere else.  Yet as we begin to learn more about the world’s peatlands, we master the technologies needed to exploit them rapidly and irreversibly (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1      A drained peatland in Indonesian Borneo, with young oil palm plants in the foreground and heavily degraded peat swamp forest in the background.

To be scientifically accurate, the irreversible component of peatland conversion is an assumption, wanting of sufficient evidence from “the field” due to the recent nature of large-scale exploitation.  But any ecosystem we see today is a product of its evolving past; a period over which it has encountered disturbances and presented a response.  From these patterns of responses, we can measure the resilience of the ecosystem (Cole et al., 2014) and develop hypotheses as to how it may respond to future disturbances.  In its simplest form, resilience is described as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its structure and function despite perturbation (Holling, 1973).

How resilient are peatlands?  Specifically, how have the tropical peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia responded to disturbance in the past?  We sought to answer these questions for the coastal peatlands of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo (Cole et al., 2015) (Fig. 2).

The plug is rapidly being pulled on these sweaty, mosquito-ridden jungles as industrial-scale agriculture spreads like wildfire across the region.  Dipterocarp forests, rich in a variety of fruit-bearing trees, ‘black-water’-adapted fish and nimble mammals, are being drained, flattened and converted into monoculture landscapes where oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) can quickly bring economic profit to even the inexperienced farmer.  Though wild-fires themselves are in fact a rare phenomenon in intact peatlands, the recent elevation in burning has been blamed primarily on the recent expansion of agriculture, and brought huge environmental, health and political challenges to the region.  But how frequent were fires in the past?  And what impact did they have on the vegetation?

Unlike in the temperate zone, tropical peat swamps are naturally forested.  It is the pollen grains and fern spores produced by this vegetation that provide the answers to our questions and insights into the resilience of these ecosystems.  Fossilised grains, deposited tens to millions of years in the past, are one of the primary datasets available in palaeoecology.  Often referred to as (the less archaic-sounding) long-term ecology, the discipline extends the scope of ‘short-term’ ecology through using deposited remains to study plants and animals and their interactions with the environments of the past.

We used pollen grains, fern spores and fossil charcoal to explore drivers and impacts of disturbance in three peatland areas in northern Borneo.  Peat cores were collected from three coastal sites in Sarawak (Fig. 2), where peat extends over approximately 13% of the States’ land surface.  The depths of the cores ranged from c. 1.5 to 3m, and radiocarbon dating of sediment samples from each demonstrated that they covered a period of 2000 to 7000 years before present (BP).


Fig. 2      The three degraded peatland sites (red circles; DPL, PSF & CPL) from which cores were collected for this palaeoecological study, in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.  Sarawak’s peatlands are shown in brown and its major towns in blue.

Once I’d spent many more hours than I’d like to remember counting and identifying microscopic pollen grains, I was able to look for answers to our key research questions:

  • How has the vegetation in these peatland ecosystems changed through time?
  • What factors disturbed the peat swamp forest vegetation?
  • How did these ecosystems respond to the different disturbances?

Vegetation change

Our data demonstrated that peat swamp forest vegetation has persisted in these coastal peatlands since the onset of ecosystem development c. 4000yrs BP.  At this time, coastal progradation, resulting from sea-level fall, provided land suitable for peat to accumulate.  Apart from fluctuations between pioneer and mature peat swamp forest species over this period, reflecting local disturbances and dynamic internal responses (Fig. 3), the only significant vegetation change observed was shown in the last 500 years in two of the cores.  Increases in plant taxa associated with degraded peatlands suggested the introduction of humans and land use change to these coastal ecosystems.


Fig. 3      Relatively intact peat swamp forest patch, near to the site where the “PSF” core was extracted (Fig. 2).


There were three drivers of vegetation change that we focused on in this study, each with its associated palaeoecological proxy: climatic variability, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity, identified through a literature review; local and regional fire inferred from fossil macro- and microcharcoal respectively, and anthropogenic activity indicated by pollen and spores of plants common in open areas, such as grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae).  The literature reported increasing intensity of ENSO events in this region over the late Holocene, subjecting northern Borneo to arid conditions.  Burning, both from local and regional fires, occurred throughout the past in all three sites, though elevated dramatically in the last c. 500 years in parallel with greater levels of open vegetation indicators.

Vegetation response

Only within the recent past, from c. 200-500 years BP, did the peat swamp forest vegetation show signs of being ‘disturbed’.  Prior to this period, episodes of more intense ENSO and burning did not appear to correspond with notable declines in the peat swamp forest taxa, suggesting ecosystem resilience to these forms of perturbation.  However, given that elevated levels of open vegetation indicators and charcoal do correlate with the declines observed in the recent past, and in the period when literature and interviews suggest humans started exploiting these environments, it is likely that anthropogenic activities are responsible.  Though a lack of sufficient data prevents us from inferring whether these changes equate to a recent loss of ecosystem resilience, we have made several conclusions:

  • These peat swamp forests have shown resilience to natural disturbances in the past;
  • Levels of disturbance within the last c. 500 years have exceeded those recorded in the previous 5000 years, and humans are the main culprits;
  • Recent, coincident instability and declines in peat swamp forest taxa suggest a notable anthropogenic impact on this ecosystem, potentially challenging the future persistence of these forests.

Back to the future

So, what more do we need to know about these vital* ecosystems?  Our study has provided some baseline data and information on the functioning of the coastal peat swamp forests of northern Borneo, but there are many other patches of peat around the island, and indeed the whole region to investigate.  In order to design more sustainable management practices for these unique ecosystems, it is important that we find out more about their ecology, past and present, and in particular their ability to respond to different disturbances.  With fire posing a major threat to the persistence of Southeast Asian peatlands, and the resultant carbon emissions posing a major threat to us, we need to gather insights from patterns of past recovery and build an understanding of peat swamp forest resilience.  And fast, before there’s no mud left.

*I hope I have convinced you of their extreme importance by now!



Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2014) Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance. Nature Communications, 5:3906, 1-7. Doi: 10.1038/ncomms4906.

Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2015) Long-term disturbance dynamics and resilience of tropical peat swamp forests. Journal of Ecology – Special Issue on Forest Resilience. Doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12329.

Gaveau et al. (2014) Major atmospheric emissions from peat fires in Southeast Asia during non-drought years: evidence from the 2013 Sumatran fires. Nature, 4:6112. Doi: 10.1038/srep06112.

Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23.

Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H.-D.V., Jaya, A. & Limin, S. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature, 420, 61–65.

Summarising SEARRP

Another catchy acronym; another interesting symposium.  The Royal Society’s Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme held a two day meeting in London, quite a few weeks ago now, that managed to attach some of the top contemporary tropical forest scientists, as well as a bunch of my good friends!  All the great people work in SEA forest conservation, it seems.  (Conjecture only.)

Here are my five take-away points/unanswered questions from the meeting:

1. Should we rethink our current approach to conservation or try a bit harder doing what we’re already doing?

Good question, and probably the answer is it is depends on the situation.  I know I could certainly try a bit harder with both advocating for forest conservation and with figuring out a method for translating the words I’ve written on paper into something useful for those ‘on the ground’.

2. Native charismatic leaders are needed in the country where a conservation action is required.

This is a particular favourite of mine and one I hear people bring up frequently: change starts with respected, charismatic leaders.  I think I would be more likely to participate in the annual ragwort-pull in my New Forest village if the long-standing Doctor (come theatre director, actor and charmer) encouraged me to, than if someone popped by from Sevenoaks to give his/her opinion on what us villagers should do.  Not a great example, but we all take more notice when someone we know, trust and respect gives their opinion on something concerning us.

3. The risks associated with not doing anything about forest loss and biodiversity conservation are major.

….in case anyone was considering a change of profession – please hold off for a bit longer.  We need to know more about these risks so that we can prioritise our efforts and use the knowledge to incentivise behavioural change.

4. Should scientists be aiming to publish their work on the front page of Science or on the front page of the Daily Mail?

I would say both.  As to which is more important if only one is possible, again it probably depends on the situation.  But I think there should be an obligation for scientists to somehow find the time to translate their work into publicly-accessible pieces (with advocacy potential), and for politicians to put more emphasis on the use of policy-relevant research so that society becomes more tuned-in to evidence-based decision-making….and to all of the proven c**p that’s going on in the world today.

This point is along similar lines to something that came up at this year’s Earthwatch Debate, which focused on the controversial topic of rewilding in the UK.  As summarized for the twitter nation:

Need to take the #rewilding debate from London to the village halls where people will be dealing with the #beavers head on.

5. What potential does the plethora of new technologies have to deal with the old threats?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, and again it probably depends.  There are hundreds of people who are better placed to give their opinion, one of which is the Captain of the Carnegie Plane of Dreams.  Professor Greg Asner, along with his hardworking, uber-intelligent minions, has developed technologies to map the chemistry of forest canopies, allowing for species-level identifications over vast areas.  I didn’t fall asleep once during his presentation.  And there are lots of other things going on out there, one of which I’m involved with.

6. Just remembered a 6th Roads: the bane of tropical forests, or are they?


A road that I wish wasn’t there.  It was constructed illegally (though it seems that’s disputed) into land owned by the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Central Kalimantan, and not the plantation company that built it and has started to convert the area on the left into the bland oil palm plantations that this region is now accustomed to.

Fronting the “yes” campaign, Bill Laurance provided a convincing argument, showcasing his work on the impact of roads on the tropical forests across the world.  On the “No” side, the incredible Vojtech Novotny told a captivating story of the meaning of roads for the people of New Guinea.  His colleagues from the island were shocked to hear that people in the UK campaign to halt road building.  In a country where access to many places during much of the year is near impossible, and formal education and health care near absent, the thought of getting a road is equivalent to a lifetime of Christmases rolled into one (though the concept of Christmas is probably even more alien to them than roads).  In this richly forested nation, the argument for/against roads is nuanced and warrants consideration.

The answer to most of these questions seems to be that it mostly depends on the situation.  This isn’t just my indecision shining through; I think many tropical forest conservation projects have suffered in the past from the imposition of general rules on unique situations, as each project focus inevitably is.  General theories, principles and strategies are obviously necessary and useful, but there’s a whole load of specifics beyond these, which need to be gleaned from every forest and every community.

Selungo & the Penan Peace Park

At the end of September, the documentary Sunset over the Selungo was released.  It beautifully portrays the culture of a community belonging to the Penan tribe, living in a very remote part of the remaining rainforest of Sarawak.

                  Sarawak, one of the Malaysian States in Northern Borneo, Southeast Asia.                    (Thanks Mongabay for the image….and for all of my tropical forest news!)

Though I’ve spent some time in Sarawak over the last 6 years, and so learnt a bit about the State’s many different tribal groups and their unique cultures, I was mesmerized when I watched this film last night.  You get a privileged insight into just how skillfully these people live off the riches of the rainforest.

Then in the last few minutes of the documentary, the bomb drops/chainsaw starts.  After cleverly drawing you in to the sustainable romance of the Penan’s forest existence, the Producer/Director extraordinaire (Ross Harrison) hits you with the hard-line campaign behind his piece: deforestation.  Illegal and legal loggers are trying to move into the area, and have been for some time, despite its remoteness and importance to local and global communities.

Unfortunately, this is no new story for forest-based communities.  A friend of mine, Dr Fran Lambrick, had the premier of her documentary, I am Chut Wutty, last month also.  She tells the story of the incredibly brave Cambodian campaigner, Chut Wutty, who tried to prevent the logging and destruction of the forests in his country that many communities rely on for sustainable rubber tapping and a range of other forest products and services.  He was killed.  Probably under the direction of his own Government.

Before Chut Wutty died, he made a great noise about the injustice and destruction he saw, and generated action and support that continues in his absence.  The Penan people in Ross’ film have created a voice for themselves too, and are working to create the Penan Peace Park.  If you manage to watch the film and feel inspired to help their campaign, you can donate to it here.

Spotting peat

For anyone who wants a relatively concise introduction to the Peat Spotter project I’ve been working on for the last year with Rezatec, funded by the European Space Agency, we’ve just published a promo video on YouTube.  I’ll aim to write a bit more about it soon for those avid peat spotters out there.  For now, prizes for those that spot my precious clubbed thumb in action.


An area in Central Kalimantan where we trialled some of the equipment and protocols that we’ll use to spot peat, in the ‘field’.  Here we have a typical Southeast Asian scene of drained peat, with oil palms planted in the fore- and background, and a degrading fragment of forest off in the distance.  Whether that patch of trees can actually be called a forest is another thing.  


Exploring recovery rates in tropical forests

After one near-missed flight (trying to correct the proof in time for the deadline in an airport flying between islands whilst peat spotting in Indonesia), several near sleepless nights (correcting previous drafts) and three attempts to download free-trial software (for last minute figure alterations whilst >1000 miles away from a computer that had the software on)….I was relieved to have my first paper published earlier this year.  And excited to have Cole associated, in print, with tropical forests, at long last.  The paper describes some research I did as part of my PhD, exploring the rates of tropical forest recovery after different disturbance events in the past.  Many a fossil pollen diagram was trawled to collect the data and we found some interesting results of relevance to the debate on tropical forest resilience.

Back in June, I had the privilege of writing a post on this research and our findings for the Kew Science Blog and to make a cameo appearance on Phil Martin’s Ecology for a crowded planet website, so if  you’d like to read more about the work, have a click (one’s enough – bit of a cut-and-paste job!).  Soon after, to my delight, the great Professor Corey Bradshaw wrote a bit about the research on his ConservationBytes blog.

As a first exploration of the vast data stored in published palaeoecological studies of tropical forest ecosystems, I was pleased with the insights I gleaned, but there’s a lot more potential locked up in these fossil pollen datasets.  I’ve got a long list of questions ready to start researching….as soon as a philanthropist with a tropical forest leaning gets word of the opportunity!