A Socio-Ecological Observatory for the Southern African Woodlands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


* Context
The Earth's vegetation is changing in response to climate change, increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, and harvesting for fuel, food and building materials. These changes can accelerate or reduce climate change by altering the carbon cycle, and also affect the livelihoods of those who use natural resources in their day-to-day lives.

One of the most important ways to understand vegetation change and its impacts, is to make careful measurements of the same patches of vegetation ("plots") repeatedly. Networks of these plots have produced surprising findings, challenging theory and models of vegetation responses to climate change. E.g. in Latin America, a network of these plots has shown that tropical forests are not soaking up as much carbon as predicted.

Networks of these on-the-ground plot measurements are the only way to get a detailed view of how vegetation is currently changing. However at the moment, different researchers do not combine their data to understand regional patterns of change. This project will address this by bringing together researchers collecting plot data in southern African woodlands to share data and answer the big questions about what is happening to the vegetation in the region.

The southern African woodlands are the largest savanna in the world (3 million km2), and support the livelihoods of 160M people. Many of these people are poor and depend upon the woodlands for 25% of their income and to support their agriculture. Theory and models suggest that these woodlands will be sensitive to increased atmospheric CO2 and other environmental changes underway: this is because, unlike forests, woodlands maintain a balance in the competition between trees and grasses, allowing both types of plant to co-exist. Small changes that benefit trees (such as more CO2 in the atmosphere) might rapidly change woodlands into a tree-dominated system. This would mean that they store more carbon, but might reduce the diversity of plants on the ground. It is also possible that human use of these woodlands, particularly wood harvesting for fuel, is altering their diversity and reducing the "services" that they provide.

Currently we have no way to know if these changes are happening - satellite data and models can help, but need to be validated with plot measurements.

* Aims and objectives
Understanding the response of southern African woodlands to global change is the long-term goal of SEOSAW. It will do this by creating a regularly re-measured, systematic plot network. The stepping stones to this network are to:
1) develop an online data-sharing platform to exchange existing plot data so that we can look for signs of widespread change
2) combine NERC-funded data from 486 plots with data from 1,783 plots measured by others, to create a network that covers the whole region
3) use this new data set to better understand the processes that allow trees and grasses to co-exist, to allow modellers to make better predictions of future change
4) encourage researchers to make measurements in similar ways in the future, so that we can more easily detect changes
5) create a plan for future plot measurements that covers the whole region, and makes best use of the available time and money.

* Who will benefit?
SEOSAW will fill a large gap in the network of plots in tropical regions and benefit:
- modellers of the Earth's vegetation will be able to test their models against reality in one of the most difficult to model biomes
- scientists using satellite data to map vegetation will now be able to calibrate and validate their maps in all types of tropical vegetation
- Those modelling the carbon cycle, who need to know how much carbon is being taken up by the woodlands

Conservationists will also benefit, as SEOSAW will identify parts of the region that have unique or particularly diverse woodlands, helping to prioritise conservation efforts.

Planned Impact

SEOSAW will have both economic and social benefits for the UK, for Africa, and for the global community. The medium term beneficiaries will include UK researchers and companies, the UK general public, African researchers and companies/individuals and African governments.

The grant will enhance UK leadership in the field of savanna carbon cycle science, ecosystem services and the human ecology of the tropics, assisting UK researchers and businesses in gaining income from research bodies (including EU and UN-linked funds), NGOs and private companies with interests in the region. We expect that, if our longer-term vision is successful, having the UK as a centre of savanna research could create 6-15 FTE jobs in the UK in 5-10 years, based in both Universities and SMEs (our previous work has led to new jobs in our partner SMEs, Ecometrica, Bioclimate Research and Development, and LTSi).

Scientists and researchers based in Universities, government forestry departments, NGOs and private consultancies in Africa will benefit from the increased activity and coordination of measurements in their woodlands. A combination of training, high-level publications, and exposure to top-level researchers from the UK, South Africa, the USA and elsewhere, will result in greater capacity to win funding and ecosystem monitoring contracts from government, NGOs and private companies. The impacts here could be long-lasting and multiplicative: we estimate the project will work with between 150 and 200 African researchers and field technicians, many of whom will pass on benefits to wider groups and future students throughout their future careers. There is probably the need for 20-30 FTE field scientists/technicians specialising in monitoring social and ecosystem factors in these countries by 2020, with actual numbers far lower than this currently: our project will help develop those already working in this field, and train new staff to fill these roles.

The research could have a wider long-term impact in Africa and globally. As the link between woodland resources and the global carbon cycle, and even local service provision, is currently under-researched, it is largely ignored in global climate discussions, and the value of the woodlands is often undersold locally. By enabling better quantification we believe resources for protection could flow from international bodies, and better enforcement and development of environmental protection laws and incentives could develop within African countries. This could lead to large social and economic benefits for the hundreds of millions of people living in these systems, in terms of greater food production, flood protection, rainfall generation and environmental stability, as well as producing global benefits in terms of climate stabilisation.

Finally, while the UK population is aware of the charismatic large mammals that inhabit these systems, they have little awareness of the extent or rate of change of savanna woodlands. The exciting science that will result from this network will be publicised, and will lead to an increased awareness of this large and interesting ecosystem in the UK. This will improve knowledge and understanding of environmental issues and science in the UK, with potential positive social and economic impacts as more people make positive environmental choices when buying goods and services, and potentially causing more children to consider taking STEM subjects.


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Aleman JC (2020) Floristic evidence for alternative biome states in tropical Africa. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Loubota Panzou G (2020) Pantropical variability in tree crown allometry in Global Ecology and Biogeography

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Meyfroidt P (2022) Ten facts about land systems for sustainability. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Description - we have developed a set of protocols for measuring the structure of African Woodlands. These cover trees, grass, soil and plant traits, as well as a standardised format for describing the socio-ecological context of the measurements
- we have synthesised a large data set of tree measurements from across Southern Africa
Exploitation Route others are able to use the protocols to inform their work, and the associated data management tools
Sectors Environment

URL https://seosaw.github.io
Description the methodological guidance that has been developed as part of SEOSAW has been contributed to the Mozambican government's task force on forest monitoring and is in use by the Zimbabwean Forestry Comission
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description SECO: Resolving the current and future carbon dynamics of the dry tropics
Amount £2,130,387 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/T01279X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 10/2025
Title Methods and protocols for plot data collection in southern African woodlands 
Description We have developed a set of linked protocols that will allow for data collected across the region to be compared, whilst retaining flexibility to suit the many different objectives of researchers in the region. The following protocols are iavailable: Plot design and tree measurements, including deadwood and saplings. Understory plants Soil Trees traits Seedling traits All the protocols are 'living documents', and we welcome input and suggestions from all. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The protocols will help standardise data collection and improve regional compataibility of data sets. They have already been used in Angola, and by the Zimbabwean Forestry Commission. 
URL https://seosaw.github.io/manuals.html