Trees of life

Professor Rob MacKenzie

Welcome to a week of the Saving Humans blog focused predominantly on how the plant life with which we share the planet is saving, and can do even more to save, us. First and foremost amongst the plant life-savers are the plant crops we’ve domesticated and changed beyond all recognition for efficient production of food. This week, however, the focus will be more on trees: wild woodland and forest landscapes; trees in agricultural landscapes; parks and gardens; and trees in streets. The blogs coincide with the launch of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), an event to launch Birmingham as the UK’s first biophilic city, and the Trees, People & Built Environment conference of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

The role and importance of the world’s woodlands and forests is hard to overstate: they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, provide recreational facilities, provide economic benefits, and are home to more than half of all species. Yet despite this the UK still has only 13% of its area given over to forest and the world’s forests are subject to continuing threats from emerging disease pandemics and from environmental change.

In response to these challenges, The University of Birmingham and the UK-based JABBS Foundation have invested £20million to establish the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFOR) that will address two fundamental and interrelated challenges: the impact of climate and environmental change on woodlands; and, the resilience of trees to invasive pests and diseases.

The Institute, which has secured initial funding for  ten years, will consist of refurbished laboratories and growth facilities on-campus, along with a large-scale, ground-breaking ‘free-air carbon dioxide enrichment’ (FACE) field facility that will enable globally leading scientists to take measurements from deep within the soil to above the tree canopy. The forest-FACE facility will be one of only two currently working worldwide (the other is in Australia) and one of only two that have ever attempted the experiment on a mature, mixed, semi-natural woodland.


The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

Autonomous sensors and instrumented trees will allow our scientists to take measurements continuously and remotely, over timescales ranging from seconds to decades. The facility will enable our ecologists, plant biologists, and environmental scientists to raise the concentration of CO2 in a specified area in an otherwise natural environment. By measuring the trees’ response, we will elucidate environmental risk and help developed and developing societies innovate to prepare, adapt and prosper to a future that is already set in-train by our current use of fossil fuels.

Yesterday saw the release of the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is the non-technical summary of the part of the “IPCC report”, as it is known by scientists the world over, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The summary IPCC report weighing-up the evidence for man-made climate change was published in September 2013; the current part of the report is much about how we will feel climate change in almost every part of the Earth and in almost every part of society. The 44 pages of densely argued and comprehensively referenced text summarise many ways in which forests are under threat from climate change, each with the IPCC’s assessment of how confident they are in their statements:

“Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (e.g., in peatlands, permafrost, and forests) is susceptible to loss to the atmosphere as a result of climate change, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation (high confidence). Increased tree mortality and associated forest dieback is projected to occur in many regions over the 21st century, due to increased temperatures and drought (medium confidence). Forest dieback poses risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity.”

Thankfully, the report also points to the many ways — e.g. agroforestry projects and reforestation of coastal mangrove swamps in Asia — in which forests can be part of a solution or, at least, an accommodation to our changing environment. This upbeat identification of opportunities to change things for the better is the perfect introduction to this week’s series of blogs, so I leave the last word to the IPCC:

“Significant co-benefits, synergies, and tradeoffs exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses; interactions occur both within and across regions (very high confidence). …Examples of actions with co-benefits include …(ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. (IPCC, WG2 SPM, p24)”.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

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