NSFDEB-NERC: Understanding drought and post-drought legacy effects in tropical forest

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh


This project addresses a key gap in understanding how tropical forests respond to drought across scales, from organ to tree and forest ecosystem. It will drive extended impact in new monitoring capability using satellite data, in advanced land surface modelling, and in drought risk mitigation planning, by engaging related stakeholders through 'Science & Impact' workshops. We propose the powerful combination of a unique large-scale field experiment in Amazônia together with detailed ecophysiological and new tower-based radar measurements to deliver new insights into drought responses across scales, both during drought, and importantly, during post-drought recovery.

Water availability plays a dominant role in the global carbon cycle, with a large influence from Amazônia. However, our ability to predict the effects of changing water availability is substantially constrained by limited understanding of the ecological processes occurring in response to drought, particularly in tropical forests. These responses occur across different scales, from leaf to tree to forest ecosystem, with very large impacts on the carbon cycle observed regionally and globally.

Understanding drought responses of tropical forests has proved challenging for several reasons: a lack of ecophysiological analysis at the right scales; limited capacity to deliver continuous monitoring of mechanistically-informed water stress responses at large scale, eg using satellites; and limited understanding of the ecological processes comprising drought stress and its consequences. We ask: How does drought stress affect whole-tree function, and can critical processes such as transpiration and growth recover after drought in tropical forests? Does drought stress leave a long-term legacy by limiting growth potential and by increasing the risk of possible tree mortality from future drought? And critically, how do the effects of drought on tree function affect performance at the scale of many trees, ie, that of a tropical forest?

Multi-scale measurements are needed to address these questions. A combination of focused ecophysiological measurement with new tower-based radar (microwave) observations has the potential to enable large advances in understanding, scaling from tree to forest and region. This project will combine the world's only long-term drought experiment at hectare scale in tropical forest, which we have run for the past twenty years, with new radar sensors. We will use tower-based radar measurements to detect changes in vegetation water content at the scale of the experiment. This will provide higher resolution detection and mechanistic insight than was previously possible using satellite radars, and allow us to connect radar and plant ecophysiological data.

Our specific hypotheses address: the links between organ-, tree- and ecosystem-scale responses to drought, and after drought; how these data advance our understanding of forest function and the risk to function and survival; and how this understanding can be used to advance satellite monitoring of drought impacts, and its wider use.

In summary, we have three main goals:

i) To use our ecosystem-scale drought experiment in Amazônian forest to quantify and understand the effects of drought at multiple scales, using plant physiology and tower-based radar (microwave) measurements.

ii) To understand post-drought legacy effects on forest resilience by using the control enabled by our experiment to halt the drought and monitor recovery processes, and the outcomes for growth and survival.

iii) To use (i) and (ii) to advance large-scale satellite detection capability in tropical forests for improved biomass and drought-response monitoring. We will lead two 'Science and Impact' workshops to rapidly multiply outcomes of the work by helping to improve prediction of land-atmosphere interactions using vegetation models, and better early-warning capability for land-use planning.


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Description Radar analysis with JPL 
Organisation University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The grant is a NERC-NSF collaboratoin. The NERC component delivers ecological expertise and expertise in satellite radar focusing on a drought experiment in tropical rain forest. The UCLA/JPL contribution focuses on delivering a new radar instrument for local analysis from a tower, and expertise in tower-based and satellite-based remote sensing analysis.
Collaborator Contribution Please see the sentence above.
Impact The project is very new, so outputs are not there yet.
Start Year 2022