First field season at Wytham Woods
Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire is the location of the Europe Regional Climate Centre, part of the HSBC Climate Partnership, an ambitious global research programme into the impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems. The four other climate centres are located in Brazil, India, China and North America.
The Europe Regional Climate Centre is the base for a five-year climate change and forestry research programme that Earthwatch is running in partnership with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) and Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Teams of HSBC employees, known as HSBC Climate Champions, work alongside scientists at the centre, taking part in research activities. The centre has recently completed its first full field season. Thanks to 10 teams of HSBC employees, some impressive progress has been made.
Most forests experience human disturbance of some form; the research at Wytham is exploring how human disturbance affects the response of the forest ecosystem to climate. As part of the HSBC Climate Partnership, two main studies are taking place at the site; the first study, led by Dr Eleanor Slade (WildCRU), focuses on small mammals, bats, moths, butterflies and woodlice and their dispersal ability. The second, led by Dr Tehri Riutta (ECI), investigates woodland carbon dynamics and plant ecology. These programmes share a number of study plots, which will enable comparisons to be made between woodland deep in the ‘core' of the forest and the southern and northern edges of the forest, and to make links between the animal and plant studies.
Plant study results
Forests are important in the global carbon cycle; they represent more than 55 per cent of carbon stored in vegetation in the world. Forests exchange carbon with the atmosphere through photosynthesis and respiration. When they are disturbed by human activity, forests act as sources of atmospheric carbon, contributing to climate change, but can become carbon sinks (taking up and storing carbon) during phases of rapid growth following disturbance. Forests can therefore influence climate change, and the research at Wytham led by Dr Riutta aims to investigate how the carbon cycle changes in the Wytham area in response to spatial variation - such as the species of trees, the management history of the site, soil type, fragmentation of the forest - and temporal variation, such as weather conditions.
During this first field season, the HSBC employees completed a comprehensive tree survey in the initial study plots, identifying and mapping tree species, measuring height and diameter of the trees, and fixing dendrometer bands (metal bands fixed around the tree trunk with a spring which expands as the tree grows outwards, allowing the growth rate of the trees to be measured in future seasons). These measurements have allowed Dr Riutta to extrapolate the amount of carbon stored in the trunks. A full baseline of data is now in place which will underpin future research efforts and analysis. A deadwood survey was also completed this year, leaf litter traps were set and litter material collected and sorted. This leaf litter has been used to set up decomposition experiments which will proceed throughout winter and into next year, and will compare the leaf litter decomposition process at different study plots and for different tree species.
Animal study results
Great progress has also been made on the animal study during this first season. Large amounts of preliminary data have been collected on five animal groups (moths, butterflies, woodlice, small mammals and bats), allowing initial comparisons to be made between the forest core plots and forest edge plots. A comprehensive baseline of moth species has been established and several key species records have also been made, including the woodlouse Lygidium hypnorum, a fairly rare species in the UK and an indicator of ancient woodland, and Britain's smallest mammal, the pygmy shrew, which is very rare in Wytham.
In 2009, the fieldwork will expand the project into outlying woodland fragments to investigate the effects of the size of patches of woodland and connectivity between patches (the degree of connection/ linkage of habitat) on the study species. The ability of a species to disperse through landscapes in response to changes in climate will be an important factor determining species survival.
This first field season has set the scene for the forthcoming years of the project, putting in place rigorous baseline information which future years can build on. Another partner of the HSBC Climate Partnership, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has also set up a study plot in the core of the forest. The results gathered over the course of the project will help us to understand how temperate forests will respond to climate change. As a result of this research, Earthwatch and its partner organisations will be in a position to develop guidelines for woodland managers across northern Europe, helping them to maximise the resilience of their forests to changing weather patterns.
Read more about the HSBC Climate Partnership.
Report by Earthwatch Research Officer Lianne Evans.