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Research Fellows Directory

Oliver Phillips

Professor Oliver Phillips

Research Fellow

Organisation

University of Leeds

Research summary

In a mere moment in the history of our planet a single species among 10 million is transforming the land. Deforestation is destroying biodiversity, and climate changes impact even the best protected areas. These rapid changes will affect our home for generations to come.

Tropical forests are the most productive and diverse ecosystems on Earth, but we are still only starting to understand their influence. I have led teams in discovering that Amazon & African forests have got bigger, slowing the rise of greenhouse gases. We also found that trees are growing faster in the Amazon, probably stimulated by the extra CO2. But we discovered that the carbon sink is threatened by climate change itself, with droughts killing many trees. Other changes, such as gains by tree-smothering vines, are also underway.

A great challenge we face to make sense of the changing tropics is a data-deficit. Satellites can indirectly map the Earth’s surface, but only by doing hands-on science – identifying the tree species, measuring their growth, death, digging soils, etc. – can we understand forest change. To do this on the scale required is tough but rewarding – teams of researchers need to apply a global sampling strategy, often venturing to remote places far from modern ‘necessities’ such as electricity and the internet!

Over this 5 year project I am establishing a global “Observatory” of tropical forests. This:

1. Spans all 4 tropical continents - essential to test if the carbon sink is pan-tropical, and so has a global explanation (such as CO2 fertilisation), or not.

2. Includes >300 long-term sites.

3. Identifies 1000's of species, to test if the huge biodiversity in the tropics is at risk, or if it actually protects the forest.

4. Runs elevation transects from mountains to lowland, to measure sensitivity to temperature and so predict future responses to warming

Already we have revealed the recent history of Amazon forest dynamics, charting how and why even remote forests here are changing.

Grants awarded

Tropical Forests in the Changing Earth System

Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards

Dates: Jul 2013 - Jun 2018

Value: £50,000

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