Establishing a framework to investigate how palm oil plantations management may influence boundary layer development and stability.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Geographical & Earth Sciences


In the UK we have research to try and understand how creating energy in our landscape may influence the local environment. The NERC grant 'Microclimates' is an example of such research; here we seek to understand how wind turbine deployment and biofuel crops may create and respond to local microclimates. However, members of the microclimate team propose to extend their research understanding to important biofuel crops overseas, that like wind turbines can also be deployed on peat soils, which are important C stores.

However, our focus here is not on the C storage (as our project partners are considering that), but on the land management practise of draining the soils to render them more suitable for oil palm growth. This drainage significantly influences moisture availability in the soil and in turn how much water can be evaporated from the soil surface, and so heat flux. Understanding the impact of these management practises is important as changes in evaporative fluxes influences the development of a phenomena called the boundary layer. This is the zone of atmospheric mixing immediately above the Earth's surface and influences many things including weather and air pollution.

Land conversion of tropical peats for agricultural biofuels is proceeding at a significant and uncontrolled rate and the upscaling of individual plantations could change at national scales the responses controlled by boundary layer dynamics, so we need to gather preliminary field data to better understand how significant this is.

The pump-priming funding is supported by additional investment from three Malaysian Universities that demonstrates their commitment to formalising a nascent relationship.

Planned Impact

Given that the boundary layer plays a crucial role in modulating the air quality and weather at the Earth's surface, understanding how the extensive, pervasive and rapid land use change of oil palm planting affects boundary layer stability, duration and temporal variability is of vital importance and will generate the following impact.

There will be considerable benefit to the international research community as noted in academic beneficiaries, but repeated here for ease:
1. Atmospheric scientists - WRF has over 15,000 registered users in 140 countries; this research will test whether the existing understanding of boundary layer representation in numerical weather prediction models, such as WRF, is fit-for-purpose when there is rapid spatial land use change;
2. Agricultural scientists - the water balance will be of interest to those working on oil palm yield to balance land management strategies with yields;
3. Climate modellers and those who make land packages such as JULES for incorporation into GCMs will be able to refine these models to be more representative and so accurate;
4. Environmental scientists - to understand loss of C from terrestrial C stores, the information on the spatial and temporal variation of water table will help to understand soil C loss and refine palm oil plantation payback times;
5. Hydrologists - the knowledge of the oil palm plantations water table response to drainage will inform subsequent run-off profiling.

The people of Malaysia, and the Malaysian government and policy makers, will directly benefit from this research as the understanding generated will inform models of air pollution and dispersal. This understanding will also be of value to other countries with haze pollution from burning, land drainage and plantation crops, particularly SE Asia and S America.
Ultimately the owners of oil palm plantations will benefit as public acceptance requires they demonstrate sustainable use of natural resources and that they respond to research-led understanding to adopt the best land management strategies e.g. to drain soils to a lower depth to indirectly support more effective pollutant dispersal.
Sufficient knowledge will be generated from the pump-priming investment by 0.5-1 year after the funding is finished to implement KE with the government, policy makers and industrial owners of oil palm plantations.

The PIs will benefit from this research. Waldron will benefit from this project by expanding her knowledge of Earth-atmosphere interaction and atmospheric boundary layer development; Burton will benefit from this project by developing a new understanding of the field processes that are needed to inform project outputs. It is clear from the CfS and the PP letters that our activity will enhance the research of the PP, directly by providing more detailed data sets than they are collecting and indirectly through the building of their reputation for crucial international research, aligned with their interests and of direct interest to their country and global region. The high level outputs will enhance their reputation and so attract future investment.


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Description We think this is the first study that will generate a comprehensive and detailed understanding of water table depth and soil moisture in an oil palm plantation These sites are often converted from peatland, and in this instance are considered to be highly degraded landscapes so understanding environmental response is crucial. The loggers were removed from the field in August 2016 and processing the data from the loggers is complete. We are now interpreting the data and heading to publication
Exploitation Route They could use our understanding of water table dynamics to plan how to more sustainably drain peatlands for oil palm (still a bad thing) and not over drain the site.
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description This research was presented at the International Peat Society Conference in Malaysia in August and this attracted the interest of an oil palm organisation who wanted to discuss how to manage their water table more efectively. We are close to publishing the water table data and then can promote it to the palm oil companies to allow them to think about more sustainable management.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services