UCL Geography Blog
Who is hiding in the bushes? Mat Disney and the RIEGL VZ-400 scanning the BIOMASS validation plot, Ankasa, Ghana (March 2016).
I recently wrote a blog article for the BES Methods in Ecology and Evolution journal espousing the applications and benefits of LiDAR, in particular airborne LiDAR for the assessment of forest structure over large areas. The article focused on airborne acquisitions as this has been the most prolific use of the technology in forest ecology over recent years. However here at University College London we are now combining 3D measurements captured across a range of scales, from handheld laser scanners to (soon to be launched) spaceborne sensors on the International Space Station, to create highly detailed measurements of forest structure which are applicable to a number of contemporary environmental issues.
Over the past 12 months, the UCL team have been busy deploying instruments in Ghana, Gabon, Brazil as well as closer to home in Northumberland, Oxfordshire and Kew Gardens, for a range of projects including: NERC-funded work on GREENHOUSE and a standard grant aimed at assessing tropical forest biomass; the EU-funded METEOC-II project in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) developing new ways to quantify uncertainty in EO measurements; ESA-funded calibration and validation in support of the BIOMASS and NASA GEDI missions. This blog article will summarise some of the highlights.
Different scales provide different perspectives
The department have recently purchased a GeoSLAM ZEB-REVO, a handheld laser scanner used for rapid characterisation of forest structure. Being mobile allows you to wander through the forest collecting 3D measurements which are useful for quickly locating stem positions and dimensions as well as creating digital elevation models. This has proved particularly useful in forests where dense vegetation can make more traditional inventory methods time consuming.
A walk through Wytham Woods with a GeoSLAM ZEB-REVO. The blue track is the path taken by Kim Calders and the points are LiDAR returns which are coloured by height.
To create highly detailed 3D models of individual trees, our RIEGL VZ-400 is required. Although this takes much longer to complete a scan the level of detail acquired is exceptional and almost consistent all the way to the top of the canopy. There are a number of uses for such detailed data including the accurate estimate of tree volume (and by extension biomass), understanding tree function as well as tree reconstruction for purposes of creating virtual forests.
From the bottom to the top of this 35 m+ tropical tree (captured earlier this year in Ghana) the level of detail captured using TLS is high. The mean nearest neighbour (nn) distance shown here illustrates that even towards the top of the canopy returns are <4 cm apart. (Image taken from an upcoming publication on TLS field protocols).
This year we have taken our scanner across the globe to Ghana and Gabon in Africa to scan Global Ecosystem Monitoring network plots in conjunction with the European Space Agency BIOMASS project, to the Brazilian Amazon (as part of the AmazonFACE project) as well as closer to home in Northumberland and Kew Gardens. This year also saw the completion of one of the biggest TLS scanning campaigns ever undertaken where 6 ha of Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire were scanned leaf-on and leaf-off. All this work contributes to a better understanding of the function of forests with respect to their ability to mitigate climate change.
As mentioned above, 3D data captured in the real world can be transformed into a forest of virtual trees. These can then be used in 3D radiative transfer models for a number of purposes. For example, earlier this year Dr. William Woodgate from CSIRO visited the lab where his aim was to correct imagery captured with a high temporal and spatial resolution camera for differing illumination conditions. To do this he used the librat, a Monte-Carlo ray tracing software package developed at UCL. For anyone interested in learning the basics of librat, there is a free course delivered using Jupyter notebooks for download.
Where are we off to next year?
Next year is looking like an exceptionally busy year for our team and instruments with scanning planned for Malaysian Borneo, Peru, Brazil and California as well as closer to home on the streets of Camden. We are particularly interested in combining scanning techniques over the next year, for example, combining mobile, terrestrial and airborne LiDAR to map the biomass of London’s street trees. Using the capabilities of the different sensors (e.g. rapid assessment of the ZEB-REVO, detailed volume estimates of the TLS and synoptic capture of airborne datasets), we aim to make the first detailed inventory of street tree biomass in London.
For those of you interested in a more frequent update on our activities, I would recommend following Mat Disney’s blog.
By Peter Jones
It is increasingly recognised that marine ecosystems that have a higher diversity of species are more resilient to impacts from non-native species, climate change, etc., but why is there a link between diversity and resilience and how can marine protected areas (MPAs) be made more effective in building resilience?
Species provide a variety of functional roles in ecosystems, such as nutrient recycling, population control, etc. The higher the diversity of functional groups and the higher the diversity of species and the population sizes within each functional group, the more resilient the ecosystem is, in that it can remain stable in the face of factors that could otherwise perturb it. This is because one species can replace the role of another species in the same functional group if that species is depleted by disease, over-harvesting, etc. Also, if environmental conditions change, a species that previously appeared to be redundant, in that it has no apparent functional role, can be better adapted to the new conditions and thereby is able to adopt a functional role, replacing the role of a species which is less well adapted to the new conditions. In these ways the ecosystem is able to remain in a relatively stable state, including the capacity to adapt to changing conditions. This capacity for resilience is increasingly recognised as being important, as the pressures related to human activities which can perturb marine ecosystems, e.g. greenhouse gas emissions and species introductions, increase, potentially shifting ecosystems to alternative states that provide fewer ecosystem services, e.g. food production, greenhouse gas sinks, genetic resources and tourism value.
There are a growing number of studies which demonstrate that effective MPAs can promote the resilience of marine ecosystems by providing for the recovery of species diversity, where this was previously depleted by the impacts of local activities such as fishing, tourism development, pollution, etc. A recent study by Peter Jones explores the links between different approaches to conserving MPAs and their effectiveness in promoting resilience by providing for the recovery of species diversity. Drawing on 20 case studies from around the world, including three in the UK, this study considered MPA conservation approaches in terms of ‘governance incentives’, ranging from legal (laws, regulations, etc.), to economic (funding, property rights, etc.), participative (involving local people, etc.), knowledge (shared learning, etc.) and interpretative (awareness raising, educational programmes, etc.). The findings indicate that MPAs are more effective where a higher diversity of incentives is applied, these incentives interacting with each other in a manner which is analogous to the way that different species interact in ecosystems, making the governance system more resilient to local threats from overfishing, pollution, etc.. This effectiveness, in turn, provides for the recovery of species diversity, making the ecosystem more resilient to wider-scale impacts, such as climate change and introduced species.
Marine Protected Area governance workshop, Lošinj, Croatia
The rationale behind this study is to move on from debates about which governance approach is ‘best’ or right’, in focusing on how different governance approaches can be combined. The findings of this study were recently published in the book Governing Marine Protected Areas: resilience through diversity (£40 with discount code DC361), and it is hoped this way of studying how MPAs can be more effectively conserved will provide for ‘good practice’ combinations of governance incentives to be transferred between MPAs. This innovative way of thinking about how we can make MPAs more effective is particularly relevant to the UK, as more MPAs are designated and the focus shifts to how they can be effectively conserved, recognising that the key to social-ecological resilience is diversity, both of incentives in governance systems and species in ecosystems.
This blog was originally published on the UK Wildlife Trusts Living Seas blog. For further information, see an interview with Peter Jones on governing marine protected areas - Achieving conservation objectives and social equity goals, along with a recent review of his book in Nature.
- MRU Student Conference
by Claire Dwyer
A student conference initiated by a group of Msc Global Migration students in 2011 has now become an annual event with the third Migration Research Unit (MRU) Student Conference held on Saturday 14th June 2014. Only weeks after their arrival at UCL a committee of five Msc Global Migration Students (Karin Ander; Nancy Landa; Vanessa V. Landeta; Gabriella Morrone and Lauren Shaw) was formed to organise the conference. They quickly settled on the topic of Child and Youth Migrants – an incredibly important topic given the fact that 35 million children are today living outside their country of origin and yet are under represented in much research about migration. The students quickly navigated their way to organising an impressively slick event which surpassed previous conferences in its international breadth and ambitions.
If research on children and youth migration is still relatively limited it’s clear that it’s is a growing area of interest for young researchers as evident in the excellent range of papers presented across four panels at the conference. All the presenters were masters and graduate students and this year we had a truly international range of speakers coming from universities in the US, South Africa, Germany, Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands and Ireland as well as those with national origins in Thailand, Lithuania, and Iran. The first session focused on education and included papers on the incorporation of refugee children in schools in San Diego; aspirations towards education for migrants in South Africa, many from Zimbabwe; and a fascinating paper about the ways in which children of migrants from neighbouring states to Russia are racialized, provoking debate about citizenship and Russian identity. A panel on young people and the law lead to discussion of the contradictions around definitions of ‘the child’, particularly in relation to unaccompanied minors. Child migrants are defined as lacking in agency and needing protection – and yet should also be recognised as resilient workers who contribute to their families. Examples were drawn both in relation to child migrants to Thailand, and the experiences of migrant children in ‘transit countries’ such as Malaysia and Mexico.
The theme of legal definitions and status was picked up again in the third panel which included detailed case studies of the marginalised experiences of Afghan children in Iran and the difficulties faced by child asylum seekers returned to Albania and Kosovo from the Netherlands. The fourth panel of the day focused on health and well being considering questions of how migrant children are often excluded from health care provision because of their irregular migration status. It went on to ask how interventions might be made for refugee children. However at this point I was babysitting for one of the panellists so did not catch all the papers! The last panel focused on questions of home and belonging for child migrants in Belgium and Ireland, exploring creative methodologies for engaging with young people.
During the conference I was struck by the fact that all thirteen conference speakers and the five chairs were young women, certainly not the norm for most academic conferences. I think it says something about their passionate concern for the vulnerability of marginalised and excluded children articulated alongside an emphasis on the need to recognise and celebrate young peoples’ hopes and aspirations. The quality of presentations and discussions was excellent – with the vibrant buzz continuing through the coffee and lunch breaks. There were lots of interconnecting themes and some important conversations about the challenges and ethics of doing research with young people; lines of comparison between legal regimes and frameworks in different countries as well as the possibilities for collaborative work, particularly with NGOs.
The final keynote was the dynamic and passionate migrant activist, Carlos Saavedra, former national co-ordinator for the United We Dream Network in the US. Carlos recounted the story of the DREAMer movement which campaigns for educational and legal rights for young undocumented migrants in the US many of whom came as children with their parents.
Carlos’ talk was an inspiring insight into the strategies of a direct action campaign which seeks to ‘change the story’ about migrants focusing on their contributions as citizens (articulated particularly effectively through a symbolic blood drive – ‘Will you take our illegal blood?’) and as aspiring students (campaigners wore gowns and mortar boards). He ended with some quotes from a PhD thesis about the movement talking about how academics and activists might collaborate in challenging immigrant injustice. In the UK to explore connections with wider youth and immigrant activists, Carlos is now seeking to build broader alliances of youth-led advocacy mobilisations.
The conference was a testimony to the energy and enthusiasm of the dynamic students which the interdisciplinary Msc Global Migration attracts.
Photos and more information about the conference will be posted soon on the student conference blog where you can also see abstracts of the papers.
About the author: Claire Dwyer is a Senior Lecturer at UCL Department of Geography and is co-director of its Migration Research Unit. Her research is focused on the themes of race, racism, ethnicity, transnationalism, religion and migration.
The Rio Summit of 1992 propelled biodiversity into a global spotlight pointing to tremendous human-induced species losses in the Earth’s ecosystem. Now there is urgent need to advance our knowledge on how and why species disappear from ecosystems and the implications of these losses for important goods and services that we rely on (e.g. drinking water, food, spiritual value). One crucial landscape feature thought to have a major influence on biodiversity is connectivity – how connected are habitats with one another within the landscape. A key issue here is alteration of our natural landscapes via the creation of roads, towns and farmland. Under such circumstances natural habitats become isolated and degraded which impedes the dispersal of native species. Ease of dispersal across the landscape seems to be a key feature that reduces rates of species loss in human-affected ecosystems thus preserving high biodiversity and valuable (monetary and cultural values) ecosystem services.
Lakes are uniquely useful for examining questions about biodiversity, connectivity and ecosystem services as they permit long-term (over centuries) changes in biodiversity to be studied through the analysis of fossil remains in sediment cores. The majority of aquatic organisms (e.g. algae, plants, invertebrates) leave identifiable parts in sediments, which can be dated to reveal a history of ecological change.
Lakes are hotspots of recreational activities for those who enjoy the outdoors. However, little is known about how activities such as boating and angling are related to biodiversity and ecosystem health. [Photo by Ben Goldsmith]
The Lake BESS project, led by the Environmental Change Research Centre at UCL Geography, is focussed on biodiversity and ecosystem services in two lake districts: the Broads in East Anglia and the Upper Lough Erne area in Northern Ireland. The work forms part of a wider research programme on Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainability (BESS) funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council.
We are looking into how biodiversity regulates ecological balance within lakes and would like to assess the consequences of biodiversity loss for the provision of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services from lakes are extremely diverse: recreation, tourism, water purification, flood prevention, provision of fish for anglers and fisheries and other supporting services such as carbon storage for climate mitigation. Because of this variety, changes in lake ecological functioning in response to pollution may affect the different services in different ways, rendering best practices for restoration and management difficult to establish.
One aspect we are particularly interested to develop with Lake BESS is the importance of ecological connectivity between lakes for their biodiversity. Connectivity may be a major factor determining lake ecosystem resilience because it counter-balances the negative effect of local extinction by increasing species re-colonisation. Another aspect of interest is the consequences of biological invasions by organisms such as zebra mussels and Canadian pondweed.
Zebra mussel is an invasive mussel that was first observed in Ireland in 1997 but is now becoming widespread. It can use native mussel shells as substrate, as shown on this photograph. One aim of our project is to quantify the impact of this invasion with respect to biodiversity and ecosystem services. [Photo by Jorge Salgado]
Our team is composed of Carl Sayer, Helen Bennion, Jorge Salgado and Ambroise Baker at UCL, Tom Davidson at the University of Aarhus (Denmark), Beth Okamura at the Natural History Museum and Nigel Willby at Stirling University. We are looking forward to a field campaign this summer and to presenting the result of our work to the numerous stakeholders in both lake districts. A new blog and project website for Lake BESS has been launched: http://lakebess.wordpress.com/, which is designed to engage with a broad audience so that our research will be widely disseminated and make a real difference to all stakeholders in The Broads and the Upper Lough Erne Region. Please follow our updates and get in touch if you have any comments or insights on our project, either through the website or directly by email.
Botanical biodiversity is going to be surveyed from boats using a bathyscope. [Photo by Ben Goldsmith]
Ambroise Baker is a postdoctoral researcher at UCL Geography with an interest in promoting biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes and in all aspects of botany. More details of his research and interests can be found here.
by Matthew Gandy
Writing in the spring of 2062 the turmoil of the 2040s should have come as no surprise. The death of King William V in a skiing accident (only one resort remained in Europe because of climate change) led to the accession in 2037 of the now heavily bloated ‘playboy prince’ Harry to the UK throne (consisting of England and Wales after Scottish independence in 2024 and Irish re-unification in 2030). The steady stream of revelations, including extensive tax avoidance and money laundering, led to public demands for a referendum on the future of the monarchy which was narrowly passed in 2040 but then overruled by an obscure legal move instigated by the ‘Bullingdon’ faction of the re-elected New Conservatives. Tensions were already running high following the mysterious breakdown of the computerized voting system (outsourced to Belize) during the tightly fought general election of 2039. Following a much delayed and rain drenched Robbie Williams comeback concert in Hyde Park in 2041 (now aged 88) a vast crowd had attempted to storm the now permanently cordoned off ‘district 3’ created from an amalgamation of London’s richest boroughs following the local government reorganization of 2028 that also saw the city’s metropolitan boundary extended to the M25 orbital (now doubled in width in both directions). The overstretched and underpaid private security firm Peel, in charge of London’s policing, had used live rounds on the irate crowd as they began to storm the high-end Hyde Park 2 residential towers. Following the disturbances in west London a series of security zones in other UK cities were also stormed, along with several police stations, now re-named ‘security control points’, in Leeds, Manchester and the vast ‘Medway super city’ (an elongated London overspill zone stretching from Gravesend to Whitstable). Particular fury was vented at these ‘control points’ because they managed the use of facial algorithms and DNA barcoding to restrict access to banks, hospitals, shopping centres and other buildings on a routine basis. The widespread use of ‘electronic clamping’, to render citizens ‘inactive’, and thereby excluded from society, had reached levels of 40 per cent by the early 2040s, with widening disparities in income and life expectancy across different parts of the city.
The eventual abandonment of the vast ‘Thames Barrier 2’ project in 2025, after the UK’s third debt default, led to the eventual creation of a ‘floodpark’ in 2035 stretching from the now derelict former Olympics site at Stratford to Rainham beyond the city’s former metropolitan boundary. The Thames Gateway development scheme initiated in the 1990s had been eventually dropped because of the withdrawal of insurance cover for new homes, leading to further pressure on the city’s housing market, which contributed to the widespread ‘shelter riots’ of 2021, 2037 and especially 2042. The shortage of land for new housing had also been exacerbated by two further developments: the construction of a new international airport, with four runways, in Leytonstone, which had displaced over 200,000 people; and the growing trend for ‘urban villas’, constructed in a dizzying array of architectural styles on individual 1 hectare plots, sold principally to overseas buyers at 1 trillion dollars apiece.
The aerial view of London in 2062 is dominated by the green wedge-shaped expanse of its controlled flood zone beyond which we can observe a patchwork of giant fields in which all food production is managed by the food-healthcare conglomerate BupaFood Incorporated (the term ‘food’ itself had eventually been trademarked in 2031 following unexplained interruptions to the supply of basic commodities such as wheat, milk and soya). The now permanent presence of vast stretches of standing water in east London, following the disastrous flood of 2033, has had some unexpected consequences for the city’s twelve million inhabitants: new strains of encephalitis, malaria and even dengue fever have become an everyday hazard for low-income populations, now almost exclusively concentrated in the heavily overcrowded and dilapidated ‘non investment’ zones. Although the word ‘slum’ is forbidden in all mass media outlets, now controlled by just one magnate, tattered copies of books by Mike Davis, David Harvey and other writers still circulate on the black market, in contravention of the ‘digitization’ edict of 2040, which sought to bring all forms of text-based communication under central control by Amazon IKL (Information, Knowledge and Leisure) based in New York and Shanghai.
London’s manager, the term ‘mayor’ was dropped because of its democratic connotations, has been appointed on a quinquennial basis by the now enlarged Corporation of London since 2028, when they assumed full control of the metropolitan region for planning, security and ‘policy delivery’ (all services are now outsourced and the term ‘public’ is seen as highly anachronistic). Given the size and complexity of London the attempt by the Corporation and its sponsors to control all aspects of everyday life has its limits: a glance from the thickened glass windows of bullet trains, on the eventually completed Crossrail project, reveals the tell-tale signs of local food production and clandestine allotments nestling between abandoned buildings in the city’s flood zone. Only the other day a neighbour gave me some ripe mangoes that had been secretly cultivated in our street.
N.B. This brief essay was originally published in Sarah Bell and James Paskins (eds.) Imagining the future city: London 2062 (London: Ubiquity Press) pp. 163-165. It has been posted here with the permission of the author.
About the author: Matthew Gandy is Professor of Geography at UCL and writes about cities, landscapes, and nature. For more information about his work: http://www.geog.ucl.ac.uk/about-the-department/people/academic-staff/matthew-gandy
Investigating fish passage through the VETT hydropower system: UCL Geography industry collaboration
Guest post by Jennifer Gomez Molina, VerdErg Renewable Energy Ltd
Renewable Energy is big business nowadays. With the UK legally committed to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive target to achieve 15% of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020, there is a major drive to get non-fossil fuel power sources up and running. In addition to addressing energy security and climate change, it is important to ensure that their installation and operation is environmentally considerate. For hydropower, concern has been raised about the increased hydrodynamic activity in aquatic environments and the consequent impacts on inter-linking ecosystems. Prime concerns are the impact on fish passage through these systems and the impact of these renewable energy devices on fish migration. There are various initiatives by environmental stakeholders and conservation groups to promote fish migration by decommissioning weirs but these weirs are ideal locations for hydropower generation. Can we find a balance between conservation and generating economic green energy?
I joined UCL in 2011 during my sabbatical from industry to do a Masters in Aquatic Science. Working in hydropower R&D, I wanted to advance my skills in aquatic ecosystems, environmental assessment techniques and conservation which my employer VerdErg Renewable Energy Ltd actively supported by funding my postgraduate degree and giving me the opportunity to collaborate with them for my thesis. Using VerdErg’s Venturi-Enhanced Turbine Technology (VETT) as a case study, we developed a MATLAB model with programmed safe hydrodynamic pressure boundaries from literature to determine specific design configurations and hydrodynamic conditions that would be safe for juvenile fish passage. VETT is designed to amplify low head hydropower sources by as much as five times so a conventional small, high speed turbine and generating equipment can be installed economically. 80% of the flow is passed through a primary circuit and venturi, creating region of low static pressure which draws the remaining flow via a turbine at an amplified head drop. The turbine, which takes 20% of the flow, will always be screened. The research outcomes proved invaluable and gave hope to the fact that hydropower can accommodate the conservation needs of vulnerable species and promote fish survival.
Schematic of VerdErg’s Venturi-Enhanced Turbine Technology (VETT)
After a month off to visit my family in Colombia (epic R&R required post thesis submission), it was back to work for me. The outcome of my research was inspiring, the next step was to acquire hard evidence; we all know “the proof is in the pudding”. VerdErg gave me the task to create and manage a testing programme to test live fish through a full scale instrumented prototype and determine their survivability with special focus given to juvenile fish due to their vulnerability to extreme hydrodynamic conditions in hydropower systems. The research for my thesis enabled me to identify key environmental and engineering test parameters such as which fish species to assess and under what operating conditions. In addition, my literature review identified the key concerns for fish migration and hydropower enabling me to liaise with the Environment Agency about how these could be addressed through this work.
In May 2013, we conducted the live trials in collaboration with Vis Advies BV at their facility in Nieuwegein, The Netherlands. The testing programme focussed on the hydrodynamic conditions that fish would experience when passing through the VETT’s primary circuit and venturi. This essentially would replicate what was modelled in the MATLAB model.
Jennifer Gomez Molina during installation of the VETT system (left), and conducting live trials (right)
In total, 827 fish were tested comprising of European eel, Atlantic salmon, Rainbow trout and Round goby. Using the “forced exposure method” developed by Vis et al., 2011, these fish were tested at 1.0m, 1.5m and 2.0m head drop with a maximum flow rate of 450 l/s. Independent Third Party Verification was conducted by Dr Billy Sinclair from at University of Cumbria which was funded by the Technology Strategy Board Innovation Voucher scheme.
Jennifer conducting weight and length measurements of test and control fish to determine their survivability through the full scale instrumented VETT prototype
No immediate or latent mortality or internal or external injuries from passage were observed for all test scenarios, rating the VETT model a maximum score of 1 with classification “Outstanding”. As the VETT is scalable, these findings can be extrapolated to tidal and river sites with the same hydrodynamic profiles.
A smolt in the culvert trying to swim upstream after passing through the venturi, demonstrating that fish can survive passage through the VETT system
These research outcomes inform key concerns with fish migration especially of salmonids and eels and have relevance to the efforts to restore their populations. In addition, they support the nation’s green energy goals to ensure renewable energy is environmentally considerate. VerdErg hopes to follow up this milestone achievement with a long term fish testing programme as may be required to address specific future project issues. You can find out more about the Venturi-Enhanced Turbine Technology and this project on VerdErg’s website and .
I am grateful for the lessons learnt from my taught courses at UCL which enabled me to apply my acquired knowledge to real life innovative work. For me now, it is back to saving the world, one VETT at a time.
Jennifer Gomez Molina works as an Environmental Analyst for VerdErg Renewable Energy. She completed the UCL Geography MSc Aquatic Science course in 2012 and continues to have links with the department.
I found these maps and thought they would carry on the Gabon theme for this month. They are a series of economic maps of the French Equatorial Africa from 1956 both at 1:5000000 scale and published by Service Geographique de l'A.E.F. French Equatorial Africa was established as a federation in 1910 and was made up from countries including Gabon, Chad, Middle Congo (now People's Republic of the Congo), and Ubangi-Shari (now Central African Republic). Independence came in 1960.
UCL Geography researchers at 11th International Ecology Association Congress
by Luca Marazzi, Arnaud Duranel and Emily Lines
We all know how wide-ranging Geography topics are in our Department, with the long-standing division between Physical and Human Geography, and within each field, e.g. Ecology and Palaeoecology, Climatology and Palaeoceanography, Urban studies and Migration studies, and so on. Considering ourselves both biogeographers and ecologists, we were excited to attend the INTECOL Congress “Ecology: Into the next 100 years” held here in London on 18-23 August, involving over 2,500 scientist from 67 countries and coinciding with the Centenary of the British Ecological Society.
23 oral sessions, 43 symposia, 38 workshops and 11 plenary lectures took place on a vast range of topics, including biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate change, conservation, biogeography, evolution, but also parasites, light pollution and urban ecosystems, among others (see full programme). The Congress was overwhelming, loaded with inspiring science, discussions and networking opportunities. The global community of Ecologists was well represented (although it would have been good to see more participants from developing nations), and it was brilliant to meet and speak with top scientists such as Robert May (author of Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government), Simon Levin (author of Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems), Steve Hubbell (author of The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography), Ilkka Hanski (who helped develop the Metapopulation Theory) and David Tilman (who conducted crucial research on resource competition and biodiversity).
Luca Marazzi with Professor Lord May of Oxford (Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government and mathematical ecology legend) and Karolina Petrovic, Charles Sturt University (Australia).
In the Aquatic Ecology session, Luca Marazzi gave a well-attended oral presentation of his PhD research about the 495 species of algae he observed in over 130 samples from the Okavango Delta (Botswana). In this wetland, the algal biomass and diversity are influenced by annual flood-pulse, habitat diversity and key environmental variables such as conductivity and nutrient concentrations.
UCL Geography’s Arnaud Duranel, who presented a poster on his work on the eco-hydrology of acidic mires in Central France, said the Congress was humbling due to the high quality of speakers and the range of pressing issues discussed. He explains that it was alarming to hear about the current rate of climate change (higher than during any of the preceding mass extinctions), and listen to a former US chief scientist’s story of his fruitless attempts at engaging debate with decision-making republican congressmen dismissing centuries of scientific progress on religious grounds. However, there is hope; Arnaud’s highlights were the two resolutely positive plenary talks by Bill Sutherland and David Tilman and the following debates. “It was inspiring to hear a highly recognised expert such as David Tilman arguing that it was possible to reconcile food production for 9 billion people and biodiversity conservation, and that preserving biodiversity would actually help with the former”.
Emily Lines presented her post-doc work on remote sensing of vegetation using satellite data and the impact of canopy structural heterogeneity on optical reflectance. Many vegetation ecologists are using more and more remote sensing data such as optical reflectance, LIDAR and radar, and her poster generated lots of interesting discussions about ecological applications of these types of data. The recent trend of increasing interest in advanced computational and mathematical methods in ecology continued within the conference sessions, and there were very well attended workshops on building better code and managing large data.
In a workshop on how to secure funding, senior scientists advised Ph.D. students and other scholars on how to make the most of networking opportunities, find the right grant and be resilient versus failures. Personal stories were uplifting, but a Zoology Professor admitted that “these days you would not get a post-doc without having published papers from your thesis” like he did some time ago. Competition for research posts has massively increased, but funding provision is not keeping pace with demand. Robert May had some good advice for aspiring scientists: to pick a solvable problem, surround yourself with good people and be lucky!
Luca’s thoughts during the Congress went to its slogan “Advancing ecology and making it count”. What about enhancing the lobbying power of ecologists for the sake of humanity and planet Earth? Why not ask the government and other players more vocally to better fund basic and applied research in order to understand and solve the very problems that we study with our brains, but we have at heart, such as climate change, species loss and food insecurity?
In this respect, one thing that we would really like to see in future Ecology conferences is more media presence and laypeople. What about having open days for the general public in which “normal” (especially young) people are invited in the audience? Yes, there are increasing public engagement activities and citizen science all over the world, but the issues discussed at INTECOL are so important for humanity that having (more) policy makers, stakeholders, journalists and members of the public could constitute a valid experiment. We will see. There are eminent scientists like Ecologist Paul Ehrlich who, in the face of a possible climate catastrophe, even suggested the formation of a “popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, “foresight intelligence” to provide the long term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply”.
Beliefs and practices are changing. In her Presidential address, Georgina Mace, Director of the new UCL Centre for Biodiversity and Environment research, highlighted how attitudes towards “what nature conservation is for” changed over the decades, from “Nature for itself” to today’s “People and Nature” via “Nature despite People” and “Nature for People”. Encouragingly, alliances between scientists and the public for “Nature and People” do take place and hopefully policies will increasingly follow evidence-based societal demands for sustainability.
Professor Boije Fu presenting the Ecological Society of China’s gift plaque to BES President Professor Georgina Mace for the BES Centenary.
In four years’ time much will have happened to the Earth and its inhabitants. Ecologists will meet at the 12th INTECOL Congress “Ecology and civilization in a changing world”, hosted in Beijing by the Ecological Society of China (20-25August 2017). Before then the next Ecosummit in 2016 and the Joint Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society & Société Française d'Ecologie (December 2014) will happen in France. There is a lot to look forward to in the rest of the century for Ecologists, Physical and Human Geographers and academics at large, especially in an era when, hopefully, disciplinary barriers will be overcome to solve the severe social and environmental challenges we face.
Luca Marazzi is a part-time PhD candidate at UCL Geography studying the ecology of algae in the Okavango Delta, key primary producers in the food webs of this unique subtropical wetland. More details can be found .
Arnaud Duranel is a PhD candidate at UCL Geography studying peatlands in central France, with a particular interest in their hydrology and vegetation ecology.
Emily Lines is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at UCL Geography interested in Remote Sensing of vegetation and forest ecology. More details can be found here.
By Andrew Burt
Following on from Mat Disney’s previous post Shining a light on forest structure I have recently returned from a three and a half week field campaign in Gabon, West Africa to continue researching the potential of terrestrial laser scanning for quantifying forest structure.
Our main aim was to take a laser scanner into a tropical forest environment for the very first time and survey regularly monitored plots that form part of the Global Ecosystem Monitoring network. Here, a host of direct field measurements, including trunk diameter and height, are rigorously collected for each individual tree in a one hectare plot to identify forest state and dynamics. Destructive harvesting is used to understand how tree trunk diameter and height relate to tree biomass.
Research combining terrestrial laser scanning and 3D modelling work undertaken at UCL Geography (see here) and colleagues from Tampere University of Technology (see ) has allowed us to estimate forest biomass in a fashion that is completely independent of these direct field measurements. Laser scanning produces a full spatial representation of the scanned area in the form of a 3D point cloud as shown in the video and images below. By converting these point clouds into a topological description of tree structure we can derive volume and hence biomass. This methodology provides a wealth of further benefits as these 3D tree models can also be used to drive remote sensing models for instrument analysis and parameter retrieval algorithms. Collaboration with UCL Geography forest ecologist Simon Lewis is providing the opportunity for these models to answer fundamental ecological questions which are difficult to assess using traditional measurement techniques.
A fly-through of some of the 3D data from Lope National Park (video: Kim Calders)
An individual tree extracted from the point cloud (left) and the 3D model of this isolated tree (right). Data acquired at Brisbane Forest Park, Australia (image: Andrew Burt)
Applying this approach in Gabon at regularly monitored plots is a great way to compare the output of direct field measurements and remote sensing efforts. Through this, we can investigate their agreement and/or disagreement and ultimately improve how we go about measuring forest structure.
Accompanied by two colleagues, Kim Calders and Jose Gonzalez de Tanago Menaca from the Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing at Wageningen University and their RIEGL VZ-400 terrestrial laser scanner we arrived into the capital, Libreville, prior to heading out to the first site in Akandah National Park. In just seven days and battling with some extensive understory and a multitude of very large ants, we managed to survey two, one hectare plots.
Akandah National Park (image: Jose Gonzalez de Tanago Menaca)
Following this we journeyed to Lope National Park located in the centre of the country which is a wonderful mix of savannah through to old growth forest. Here we scanned one further plot and ten smaller monitored plots that covered the full range of forest types present at Lope.
The team in front of a 2.5m diameter tree in Lope National Park (image: Jose Gonzalez de Tanago Menaca)
It was here that we also came across a friendly elephant known to the locals as Billy who kindly allowed us to give him a quick scan!
Billy the elephant! (image: Kim Calders)
This short campaign was a huge success and has demonstrated the feasibility of using laser technology to monitor forest structure in harsh conditions. Work is now underway to analyse the 210GB of scanner data acquired and we hope for there to be more news on this soon!
by Simon Turner
“A couple of metres from the mangrove edge, I spot in the corner of my eye a large shape rising out of the water. I scream, in a manly way, to assure my machete wielding assistant that I am clearly not afraid of crocodiles and have only up-ended a sunken tree branch with my makeshift raft...”
Following a successful application for funding from The Leverhulme Trust, I and colleagues from UCL Archaeology went to our research site in Ambergris Caye, Belize. We are investigating the landscape scale effects of long term human activity over the last 1000 years in coastal Belize. The site (named Marco Gonzalez) supported occupation and activity since Preclassic Maya times (ca. 300 B.C. and probably earlier). Although activities fluctuated in kind and in intensity over time, there is no evidence at Marco Gonzalez of the collapse that depopulated a number of mainland sites between ca. A.D. 750 and 1000. Instead, far-flung trade and exchange activity flourished during this period and set the stage for the seaborne commerce which so impressed Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.
The field site from the air, approaching Ambergris Caye, Belize. The site is marked by a difference in vegetation. Note azure coral sea and barrier reef in background and scatter of mosquito friendly pools.
Prior to collapse, during the Late Classic period between ca. A.D. 550 and 750, when mainland cities such as Tikal reached the height of their power, inhabitants of Marco Gonzalez were producing salt on an apparently large scale. They cleared vegetation, collected salt, and, as a final step, heated brine in ceramic vessels in order to drive off water, which resulted in deposition of pyrogenic carbon—presumably the remains of the fuel used in heating the brine. When salt production ceased, sometime between about A.D. 750 and 800, buildings of local reef-stone and wood were constructed over salt production sites, settlement expanded, and people were buried (as is Maya practice) beneath the floors of successive structures. About A.D. 1200-1250, inhabitants drifted away from the area, although a few families continued to live at Marco Gonzalez until the 16th century. The decision to abandon the site was likely to have been also influenced by changes in coastal evolution that led to back barrier sedimentation and mangrove expansion.
Of key interest at Marco Gonzalez are the dark soils, or anthropogenic black earths, that developed during occupation of the site. Pyrogenic carbon comprising the salt processing debris is thought to play a pivotal role in dark earth formation. The site consists of large mounds of dark soil and waste products from the processing of marine resources, underlying, covering and forming the core of structures related to the phases of Maya occupation. The anthropogenic soils and processing materials also spread out from the site and mixed with the coastal and mangrove sediments as they in-filled the back barrier lagoon.
Core retrieved from the mangrove margin at Marco Gonzalez. The dark brown mangrove peat (left) sits on top of lagoon mud and artefact detritus from the site. Is this core recording the end of occupation at the site when the mangroves blocked access to the open sea? We will have to wait and see once all the analyses have been completed.
My role in the project is to investigate how the soils and archaeological stratigraphy found at the site relate to the coastal wetland and lagoon sediments found around the periphery of the occupied area. The multidisciplinary and cross-departmental (Archaeology and Geography) project will run for the next 18 months analysing the sediments and soils we retrieved.
“With the core tube well and truly stuck in the mud, and not visible beneath the surface of the milky tea coloured water, the pond around me has started to writhe with fish, with some of them hitting the underside of my raft. Something brushes my arm. Screaming, in a manly fashion, happens again…”
Hitting the headlines in the San Pedro Sun (apologies for neckerchief):
Simon Turner is a Research Fellow at UCL Geography.