Spatio-TEmporal Dynamics of Forest Response to ENSO Drought (STEED)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Dundee
Department Name: Geography and Environmental Science


Globally, almost half of all remaining tropical forest is allocated for timber production, illustrating the enormous economic asset that these forests represent to many nations. Additionally, these forests provide important societal and ecosystem services, from being sources of food through to climate change mitigation and generating income from carbon offset schemes. Compared to undisturbed forests, much less is known about previously logged and degraded forests that are regenerating. Critically, with increasingly smaller areas of undisturbed forest remaining, the economic and societal importance of disturbed forests has become greater in recent years. However, the resilience of these forests i.e. their capacity to respond to short-term perturbations (e.g. ENSO-induced drought) by resisting damage and recovering quickly, is poorly understood. If we are to manage tropical forests, both in terms of their initial exploitation and subsequent rehabilitation, we need to better understand how these systems respond to periodic drought at local to regional scales. Only then can we develop policies and practice that explicitly take into account the impacts of drought and protect the economic and societal benefits derived from these fragile ecosystems.
To provide the evidence from which policy makers and practitioners can better plan forest management strategies we will examine the impact of the current ENSO drought on logged and degraded forests in Borneo, SE Asia, using a combination of ground-based and satellite remote sensing methods. In the field we will examine the response of trees to drought across a disturbance gradient, making use of a network of forest inventory plots that were established in the mid-1990s at the time of the last major ENSO drought to affect the region. In 2014 these plots were revisited as part of a long-term study into post-logging recovery of disturbed forests and as such represent a unique natural laboratory for comparing ENSO-induced changes in forest structure, composition and ecosystem functioning across a land-use gradient and addressing the interactions of logging disturbance and drought. We will revisit 25 plots at least four times during the 18 month project. At each plot we will measure a variety of leaf traits, canopy structure and tree mortality. This will be done by a joint team of UK and Malaysian research assistants who will harvest leaves and analyse leaf chemical properties in facilities at the Universiti of Malaysia.
Additionally we will collect spectral reflectance measurements from the leaves. This will allow us to scale up our field observations to use multispectral satellite images to map forest response to the current drought across wider regions. In particular, we will make use of the new Sentinel-2 earth observing satellite to generate region-wide maps of current drought impact, whilst also producing a 20 year time-series drought index from NOAA AVHRR imagery. The latter will provide evidence of the temporal response of the forest to drought in comparison with non-drought conditions, whilst the former will allow us to map the spatial coherence of forest response, determining whether prior disturbance or other factors affect the resilience of forests to drought events. Finally, we will track changes in canopy structure and composition through observations from UAV-mounted sensors, from which we will examine the dynamics of liana/tree composition, which appear to change during drought conditions.
With our project partners, the South East Asian Rainforest Research Programme and Permian Global, we will engage with a network of actors who are responsible for forest management across the SE Asia region. We will do this through dissemination activities including a workshop in Malaysia, where will present evidence of the impact of the current ENSO on SE Asian forests and provide a forum for discussion on how best to adapt forest management policy and practice to future ENSO events.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of this research will benefit anyone who has a role in developing, influencing or instigating plans and policies relating to the sustainable exploitation and management of tropical forests. By providing direct evidence of the impacts of the current strong ENSO event on forest functioning, resilience and ecosystem services, it will also provide important information for those developing policy and practice to mitigate against the societal and economic impacts of future ENSO events. In particular, we anticipate this work being of benefit to:
(i) local inhabitants who rely on the ecosystem services provided by logged and degraded forests across SE Asia, whether that is for employment, timber extraction, fuel, medicine or food production. Better stewardship of forests in ways that specifically take into account the impacts of drought will help preserve and manage these ecosystems to provide societal benefits for the long-term.
(ii) regional and state governments in SE Asia that need to plan for the impacts of ENSO, the management of natural resources and societal impacts that arise from drought effects upon the ecosystem services delivered by logged an degraded forests.
(iii) organisations, such as Permian Global, and other investment firms dedicated to the protection and recovery of natural forests to mitigate climate change, and who provide an important source of income to developing nations.
(iv) International non-governmental conservation organisations and networks, such as the South East Asian Rainforest Research Programme and the Rainforest Trust who have ongoing projects based in SE Asia.
We will ensure that these impacts are delivered by a variety of dissemination activities, including public engagement with UK organisations that help translate biodiversity research into materials in schools, thus raising awareness of ENSO impacts in future generations of UK school-children.
Academic dissemination will be via high impact publications, conferences and a dedicated project workshop. At this event, hosted by the University of Nottingham in Kuala Lumpur, we will invite leading actors who hold influential positions in forestry management, conservation and policy development to both hear about our work and help us to translate the project outcomes into future policies to mitigate the impacts of ENSO and drought more widely. These invited delegates will be drawn from across SE Asia, supported by links to organisations with which we currently collaborate, including the Indonesian Institute for Sciences (LIPI). At this event we will also highlight the advances in remote sensing that make monitoring of these events much easier and more detailed than ever before, running a 'hands-on' workshop to demonstrate these benefits and create a forum for increasing capacity within SE Asia for monitoring environmental change with remote sensing technologies.


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Description This project has significantly contributed to a programme of research that is exploring the impacts of long-term (e.g. logging) and short-term disturbance (such as El Nino) on the growth, health and diversity of tropical forests. Our particular findings include:
(i) forest restoration significantly enhances the recovery of tropical forests by more than 50%. When restoration measures such as enrichment planting and liana cutting are practiced we have seen a recovery rate of more than 4.4 mega grams of carbon per year, compared to 2.9 Mg C per year in forests that have been left to regenerate naturally (over a 20 year period).
(ii) during the 2015 El Nino we did not see any significant evidence of increased tree mortality in either the logged or the unlogged forests (as measured by high spatial resolution satellite imagery). It is possible that the impact of the drought may be lagged, suggesting that tree mortality may increase in subsequent years as was noted during the large El Nino in 1996 and this will be a focus for further research. We did, however, note an increase in liana distribution (as observed through UAV data) during the dryer period of El Nino. Whether this infestation is lasting and will lead to changes in forest diversity requires longer-term monitoring.
(iii) we did note a slight increase in forest productivity during the El Nino as measured by changes in forest traits. Understanding what is driving these changes and the longer term resilience of disturbed forests to short-term climatic shocks requires further work. As a result of this and other related projects (e.g. HMTF), we are proposing a new NERC Strategic Programme on tropical forest resilience.
Exploitation Route The findings of the STEED project will have specific use for those managing and investing in tropical forests. In particular:
(i) Investment groups and state forest management organisations will benefit from knowledge and understanding of the impact that forest restoration can have upon accumulated carbon density in forests. However, our analysis also suggest that the current market price for carbon is a disincentive to invest in restoration practices and so other financing mechanisms (such as investment based upon diversity as well as carbon) is required. These organisation will also benefit from observations of increased liana infestation and may need to alter forest rehabilitation and management practices during drought events as a result.
(ii) the network of forest inventory plots resurveyed as part of this project are now supporting PhD student research at Universities of Aberdeen, Nottingham and Stirling, as well as future research bids.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink


Financial Services

and Management Consultancy

Description 1) In collaboration with other 3 other El NIno programme projects, we have contributed to a training workshop run in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge in December 2017 on the use of novel imagery sources in museum outreach for partner El Nino project staff and museum professionals; 2) Led by the University of Cambridge, we have contributed to a two-week travel tour for researchers from the four funded El Nino projects. This included local researchers visiting study sites in Danum Valley and the SAFE Project, Malaysia and the BEFTA Project in Riau, Indonesia. Over the course of the trip researchers presented the results of their project and were trained and received feedback in their presentation skills. Possible collaborative projects were discussed and participants were keen to follow this up. You can follow more about this exchange tour at 3) The study tour culminated in a day-long research symposium in Pekanbaru, Riau, where all participants presented on their research to an audience of industry professionals, a representative from the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, and academics from both Malaysian and Indonesian Universities; 4) Based upon our collaboration with University of Cambridge, we have contributed to the development of a school outreach programme by working closely with an outreach professional, Sara Steele, from the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. This programme involved targeting primary schools in Riau, Indonesia, as well as schools in Cambridge and setting up a link between schools from these two countries. School visits in both countries have taken place and students will exchange drawings of local wildlife as well as taking part in a 'name the orang utan' competition. At both sets of schools we also developed games to explain the importance of biodiversity and conservation to pupils. Study tour participants from Malaysia, Indonesia and PNG were trained and practicsed delivering this material, enabling them to take these pre-prepared lessons to schools across the region and at the locations of the other projects. The material has also been translated into different languages for the different projects. 5) the forest inventory data and above-ground biomass analysis conducted as part of this project have been shared with the GEDI (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation) team, who have developed and launched a high resolution laser ranging sensor which is now on-board the International Space Station. The data, along with other datasets from sites across the World, are being used to help validate and calibrate the system before it is commissioned and will help in the production of regular lidar-based estimate of global forest biomass and forest change,
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural



Description Development of new protected areas in Sabah
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Title 2016 INDFORSUS plot resurvey 
Description Completed - Re-census of 52 forest plots, first established in 1996 as part of the EU-Funded INDFORSUS project. All trees within each of the 0.1 ha plots were recorded, with species, dbh, height, position and canopy cover recorded. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Plot re-census was completed in late Autumn 2016. Initial results suggest significant accumulation of biomass compared to the survey in 1996, which will lead to a high impact publication in due course. 
Title Aboveground carbon density plots from a logged forest, Danum Valley, Borneo, 1992-2016 
Description Data are presented for Above ground Carbon Density (ACD) estimated from a series of forest census surveys which took place from 1992 - 2016 in a mixture of logged and unlogged tropical lowland dipterocarp forest in the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve (USFR) and Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA), Sabah, Malaysia. Additional data on logging method, coupe and year of logging is also presented. The USFR comprises of forested land divided into coupes that were each logged once, between 1972 and 1993 using either 'tractor' or 'high-lead' methods. Between 1993 and 2004, forest restoration treatments were carried out, including climber cutting and tree planting, annually across logging coupes within the USFR. The data-set was compiled from census carried out in three independent plot networks. The first led by researchers from the Universities of Dundee, Aberdeen and Nottingham. The second led by researchers from the University of Aberdeen. The third through the INnoprise FAce PROject INFAPRO project. Between 1992 and 2016 a forest census survey was carried out on at least two occasions in 553 forest plots to determine the rate of ACD accumulation and understand the impact of forest restoration treatments on ACD accumulation. Tree stem diameter, height and identity measurements at each plot were collected by project members and research assistants employed by the SouthEast Asian Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP). The ACD carbon estimation and modelling was led by researchers from the Universities of Dundee, ETH Zurich and Aberdeen. The data were compiled and submitted by researchers from the University of Dundee and ETH Zurich. Funding for the establishment of the original plot networks was provided by the EU-funded INDFORSUS project (ER-BIC18T960102), from New England Electric Systems, National Geographic Society and the Garden Club of America, and from Face the Future Foundation. Funding for the repeated measurements was provided by the NERC 'Spatio-TEmporal Dynamics of Forest Response to ENSO Drought (STEED)' (NERC grant reference NE/P004806/1) and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded project 'Changing species diversity and biomass accumulation in conserved and regenerating tropical forests: two decades on'. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Description Data to be used by Matheus Nunes 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Public Health and Primary Care
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Facilitated fieldwork for University of Cambridge Ph.D. student to undertake spectral measurements of leaves from plots established and used in the STEED project.
Collaborator Contribution University of Cambridge Ph.D. student undertook fieldwork in support of the leaf trait campaign, collecting spectral data from trees in plots established and used in the STEED project. The spectral data will both support ongoing Ph.D. research and the STEED project. The University of Cambridge have provided in-kind support in terms of time from both PhD student and Supervisor in aiding the design and completion of the fieldwork.
Impact Multidisciplinary collaboration between Geography (EO scientists) and Ecologists.
Start Year 2016
Description Forest Research Centre Sepilok 
Organisation Forest Research Centre
Country Malaysia 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution We have engaged with the Forest Research Centre, which is part of the Sabah Forestry Department, for work on soil chemistry and collaboration on pot experiments involving tropical tree seedlings. Members of our research team have visited the centre, conducted training and implemented experiments in collaboration with local scientists.
Collaborator Contribution Staff at the Forest Research Centre have provided access to nursery space, laboratory infrastructure and advice on species and sites for research.
Impact 1. Data-sets on plant and soil chemistry. 2. Experiments on responses of tree seedlings to experimental P addition.3. Publications.
Start Year 2016
Description Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership 
Organisation SE Asia Rainforest Research Partnership
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Designing and implementing research projects, including data collection, analysis and preparation of manuscripts.
Collaborator Contribution Logistics and support in Malaysia, including assistance with permit applications, site access and provisions of local infrastructure and personnel.
Impact Multiple presentations, presentations, policy documents and funding applications, as detailed elsewhere in the ResearchFish archive.
Description Cafe Science - What's happening to our Rainforests? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk given as part of the University of Dundee Cafe Science series of informal talks on topical subjects. In this case, research surrounding tropical forest disturbance and restoration was presented, alongside plans of political parties regarding (re)afforestation programmes to address climate warming. The talk concluded with an interactive question and answer session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Doors Open Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The annual Doors Open Day is an engagement event for the general public show-casing University research. A stand based on our NERC-funded research attracted a lot of attention and question from children and adults, many of whom reported never having stepped inside a University building before.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
Description Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Work resulting from the STEED project was exhibited at an art exhibition at the University of Dundee entitled 'Botanical Conversations'. Additionally
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description General talk to a public audience (Friends of the Cruickshank Botanic Garden) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact Invitation to present a talk in the seminar series of the Friends of the Cruickshank Botanic Garden, which stimulated debate among members in relation to horticultural implications of my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Keynote Address at World Biodiversity Forum, Davos, February 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote presentation at a major international conference designed to contribute evidence to the post-2020 review of the Convention on Biological Diversity, attended by policy-makers and biodiversity practitioners as well as academic researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Public lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Online video presentation delivered as part of the University of Dundee 'Discovery Days' series, describing the outcomes of the STEED project to a public audience, with questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Seminar presentation to International Institute of Tropical Agriculture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I presented a research talk to about 50 members of staff IITA broadly engaged with research on tropical forest restoration, including a question and answer session that stimulated discussion and follow-up correspondence.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description Th Conversation magazine article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Article published in the magazine The Conversation entitled Regrowing a Tropical Forest - is it better to plant trees or leave it to nature? (D. Burslem, C.Philipson and M.Cutler, published March 23 2021). Summary of arguments and views that have developed since previously published article in the journal Science (Philispon et al., 2020).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021