Research helps forests face the future

Trees are the building blocks of our natural landscapes but forests around the globe  are under threat from climate change and  disease. Thanks to a transformational  £15 million gift, the University is establishing  a pioneering institute of forest research  to find possible solutions.

A healthy forest is like a healthy economy, it is resilient when  it is multi-functional. 'So just like an economy that relies only on banking becomes  dysfunctional, a forest where a particular group of trees is  destroyed by disease or the effects of climate change is in  danger,’ says Professor Rob MacKenzie, Director of the  Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR).

The Institute will conduct research into two fundamental and  interrelated challenges to the world’s forests: the environmental  impacts of climate change and the effects of pests and  disease. It will reveal credible solutions to the problems  associated with sustaining forests and the vital fibre, food,  fuel and environmental cleansing services they provide.

Thanks to an exceptional gift from Professor Jo Bradwell and  Dr Barbara Scott combining with University  investment, BIFoR will be unique in Europe in size, ambition  and scope. As one of only three such research centres in  the world, it will firmly establish the UK as a world leader in  forestry research.

A healthy forest is like a healthy economy, it is resilient when it is multi-functional.

BIFoR will provide an opportunity to  understand the myriad of  individual processes that  control how a forest landscape  will evolve under the pressures of a  changing environment. It will allow researchers  to observe, and manipulate where possible, all the individual  processes locked together within the ecosystem.

At the centre of the Institute’s work will be a mature oak  woodland in Staffordshire, which will be transformed with a  Free-Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) system. This will pump  controlled levels of additional carbon dioxide into the  atmosphere so scientists can monitor its effect on the trees,  plants and animals.

The researchers are using the FACE system because they  are interested in the whole forest’s response to increased  carbon dioxide levels, not just the individual plant’s. BIFoR’s  research will be unique because previous experiments have  been done in plantation  woodland, in very different  ecosystems, or on young, growing  trees. The timeframe of the project  is also unprecedented; Professor  MacKenzie and his team will be monitoring the  experiment at least every second for at least a decade.  Many of us will remember from biology lessons at school  that plants photosynthesise. The process of converting  carbon dioxide into sugars produces oxygen so surely  increased carbon dioxide levels are good for the plant  part of the environment?

‘We expect we’ll see an initially very positive response  which will change over time as other aspects of the trees’  health are affected,’ Professor MacKenzie says.  ‘For example, some current models suggest that climate  change might make the Amazon slightly drier. If that’s true, one  plausible response of the Amazon rainforest is to dry out and  to retreat in its effort to adapt to the conditions.’ 

BIFoR will work closely with international research centres in the US, Australia and Brazil, and a related area it will  investigate is tree disease. If an epidemic such as Ash Die  Back kills off a large number of trees in a forest, the amount  of carbon dioxide that forest is able to absorb reduces.

‘With the global trade in plants, we need a more nimble  and agile response when invasive pests and diseases arrive,’  Professor MacKenzie says.  ‘It would be nice to find a magic bullet solution, but we  suspect that most of the time we will be thinking about how  we can manage our landscape so that when these situations  inevitably arise, the result is not catastrophe.’

The FACE experiment will begin in 2016 and beforehand,  the scientists will be assessing the forest’s health. This will  involve departments across the University collaborating to  measure the in-flows and out-flows of carbon, nitrogen and  phosphorous, the main ingredients that make up living material,  through the water, air and soil and, of course, through the  plants and animals.

‘What we’re actually doing is combining expertise that we  already have right across the University, from cultural studies,  social science and environmental economics all the way  through to physics, bioscience and engineering,’ Professor  MacKenzie says.  ‘The University has always had a very strong urban identity  but, in fact, our research has been relevant to rural landscapes  for decades and BIFoR will provide a very visible “home”  for that fundamental work.’

An incredible gift


Alumnus Professor Jo Bradwell (MBChB Medicine, 1968; HonDSc, 2011) and his wife Dr Barbara Scott  (BSc Biological Sciences, 1977; PhD Medicine, 1981)  have enabled the establishment of BIFoR with a  £15 million donation, one of the largest ever gifts  to a UK university and historically the largest ever  gift to Birmingham. The gift was made through the  JABBS Foundation. 

Jo, who worked as a lecturer in the Department of  Medicine and a senior lecturer and professor in the  Department of Immunology, founded the Binding Site,  a University spin-out company, in 1983. Developing  diagnostic products for immune-deficiency and  autoimmunity plus a range of important novel cancer  tests, the company has continued to expand for 30 years,  winning the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement  twice, and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

Jo is passionate about the global issue of climate  change and how our forests are threatened. He sees  woodlands as patients who need diagnosing before the  relevant treatment can be decided upon.  ‘The UK has the lowest woodland cover of any large,  European country because of deforestation over the  centuries,’ he says.

‘What little we have remaining is now under serious  threat from climate change and imported tree diseases.  The new Institute of Forest Research will increase our  understanding of these challenges in order to help  planners, owners and foresters maintain and improve  the health of our woods.’


Responsible Research

During the FACE experiment, the research team will be diverting carbon dioxide which would otherwise go into the atmosphere for scientific use. The levels of carbon dioxide pumped into the forest will not be dangerous to plants or animals.