Research news

November 2020

On the 1 Nov 2020, BIFoR FACE ceased CO2 dosing, with leaves falling thick and fast. Before the season ended there was just time to do one extra experiment. The Pulse & Trace experiment, was designed to show how the CO2, is carried through the woodland on the wind. After dark, the operator station was reconfigured to watch the entire forest, while a large pulse of CO2 was sent into the forest via the FACE towers. PhD student Ed Bannister, assisted by engineering apprentice Tom Downes, watch the gas flowing through the woodland. 

The experiment was a success with the CO2 indicated on the other side of the wood. The CO2 was allowed to dissipate before running a second pulse. Again the CO2 behaved as expected appearing at the other side of the woodland in only 6 minutes!

It proved to be a late night for engineers, Nick Harper, Tom and Ed. It was after 10pm by time the system had been reset for normal operation.

Pulse & Trace



November 2020
Appointment to the Nutrient Management Expert Group at DEFRA

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) appointed Sami Ullah, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences as an advisor to join the Nutrient Management Expert Group (NMEG) at DEFRA. Fertilizers and nutrient management: the planning, storage and application of fertilizers to land for crop production can have unintended consequences for environmental quality. Sustaining crop production whilst protecting air and water quality in agricultural catchments is a key challenge and thus, on-farm fertilization decisions requires clear, concise and science-driven policy guidelines to secure food and to protect and enhance environmental quality. Under the DEFRA’s Clean Air Strategy of 2019 and the Environmental Land Management Policy of 2020, a key impetus is to devise a nutrient management policy that can help meet the challenge of Net Zero Greenhouse Gas Emission by 2050 and ensures protection of water quality and biodiversity. 

The Nutrient Management Expert Group will review and scrutinize existing policy approaches to current challenges, alongside latest science and technical data evidence on fertilizers and nutrient management. Over the next two years, the Group will produce recommendations for optimal policy approaches for fertilizer and nutrients management on land. The new policy measures will be embedded into the DEFRA’s Environmental Land Management founding principles of “public money for public goods” so that support for farmers can be provided for soil husbandry measures for carbon sequestration, restoration of natural ecosystems and conservation of soil health and fertility for food security and healthy water resources.

International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) 2019 

The IUFRO World Congress is held every five years bringing together a wide range of forest research organisations to share and exchange their work on an international basis. IUFRO members come from more than 200 countries, 90 of which were represented at the 25th Congress held in Curitiba, Brazil from 29th Sept -5th Oct 2019. The Congress was structured under five key themes: Forests and Climate Change; Biodiversity, ecosystem services and biological invasions; Forests for People; Forests and forest products for a greener future and finally Forest, soil and water interactions, which drew together the preceding themes.

Attendees from BIFoR included Rob MacKenzie, Sue Quick, Angeliki Kourmouli and Anna Gardner of the FACE team and Tom Pugh and Nezha Acil covering the tree mortality angle.

On the Monday we were inspired to hear Werner Kutz, a carbon cycle specialists and Suzanne Simard, famous for her work on belowground fungal networks and upcoming book theme concerning 'Finding the Mother Tree'. A number of us found close affinity with this session.

Presenters in the technical session ‘Response of forest ecosystems to climate change: Learning from experimental manipulations and natural gradients’ included Rob MacKenzie who gave a whistle-stop tour of the experimental design and early findings from the BIFoR FACE future forest experiment.

Angeliki Kourmouli presented to a packed technical session on ‘Physiological and biogeochemical response of forest ecosystems to climate change and air pollution’. Her talk, ‘Soil respiration under elevated CO2 at a temperate mature forest‘, described a part of the results of her doctoral study. Her work was focused on quantifying the contribution of various soil components to overall soil respiration and identifying how these components were affected by the elevated CO2.

IUFRO 2019

Two BIFoR doctoral students gave electronic poster presentations. Early in the week Anna Gardner presented an informative electronic poster regarding leaf physiology of oaks entitled: ‘The effect of elevated carbon dioxide on leaf-level physiology in a mature temperate woodland’. Then on Wednesday Sue Quick presented her poster ‘Woodland resilience to climate change: assessing tree-soil-water relations under elevated atmospheric CO2’. Whilst we both enjoyed this opportunity to present, both sessions experienced technical hitches, delaying the presentations programme.

The tree mortality session saw the official launch of the International Tree Mortality Network (, of which Tom Pugh is a co-lead. This network aims to facilitate collaboration between scientists to combine expertise, knowledge and data, thereby allowing a global assessment of tree mortality and providing crucial information for forest managers and policymaking. Tom presented his work ‘Towards a realistic representation of disturbance events in global vegetation models‘ and Nezha Acil spoke about her doctoral research ‘Characterising and quantifying forest disturbance patches using global satellite-derived data’

Talking about her Congress experience, Nezha said:

‘Overall, IUFRO 2019 Congress was a very enriching experience. I could present my research and preliminary results to a wide audience of specialists in the tree mortality session. The other technical sessions I attended allowed me to learn more about recent advances in remote sensing and cloud-computing techniques for forest change monitoring. One presentation of great interest to me was the methods and pilot results of FAO’s FRA2020 Remote Sensing Survey, using Open Foris Collect Earth and Sepal, a suite of tools facilitating the retrieval and processing of massive data. I also had the opportunity to meet several international experts, exchange with old acquaintances and discuss possibilities of future projects and collaboration. Curitiba is an amazingly beautiful city with many gorgeous green spaces. I could visit some of the Atlantic forests in the region and the fauna, flora and landscapes there are just stunning.‘

IUFRO 2019 b

Due to our broad interest in all things forest and climate change, it became very difficult to select which technical sessions to attend. For Sue, the best plenary was that on Forest, soil and water interactions, with the two speakers Meine van Noordwijk and Dipak Gyawali.

A point for meeting and chatting was around the photographic exhibition with the theme ‘Women in the Forest’. Two photographs from BIFoR attendees, submitted by Sue Quick and Anna Gardner were selected for display – a nice surprise when we arrived.

Brazilian dance was shared with all who went to the Gala Dinner, providing excellent food, drink and dancing which most of us participated in – a great way to bond with other attendees, especially if you had language difficulties!

Once in Brazil, the most exciting highlights included the opportunity to visit and experience the remnants of the native Atlantic Forest, including many specimens of Araucaria augustifolia as well as a range of other native deciduous tree and shrub species. Sue’s field trip visited Nṹcleo Piraquara nature reserve and the adjacent Carvahlo reservoir, which has fed Curitiba to provide drinking water for the past 110 years. Others visited the many parks within and around Curitiba, or explored the beautiful city and its impressive graffiti art.

Thanks from us all for the support given by College of LES enabling us to attend IUFRO World Congress 2019. IUFRO World Congress demonstrated that forest research is now much more multidisciplinary. This was an unique and memorable opportunity in support of our research.

New study shows impact of largescale tree death on carbon storage

Largescale ‘disturbances’, including fires, harvesting, windstorms and insect outbreaks, which kill large patches of forest, are responsible for more than a tenth of tree death worldwide, according to new research at the University of Birmingham.  The research, published in Nature Geoscience, also showed wide regional variation, with parts of Scandinavia, the USA, Canada and Russia having a particularly high frequency of these disturbances.  Mapping the causes of tree death is important because it helps scientists understand how the world’s carbon stocks – stored in forests – are affected by these disturbances and the frequency with which they occur.

Researchers in the Birmingham Institute for Forest Research (BIFoR) at the University of Birmingham studied satellite-based observations of forest lost between 2000 and 2014, and assessed the typical time interval between large disturbance events across the world’s forests. Read more 

New Chair of BIFoR Announced

In January 2020, Professor Rob Jackson will join the University of Birmingham as the Chair in Tree Pathology in the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR).

Professor Jackson, currently Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Head of School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, is a renowned plant biologist and specialises in the study of the interaction between microbes and plants. Read more.

New report: Using Green Infrastructure to protect people for air pollution

This report has been produced in consultation with the BIFoR's Dr James Levine (University of Birmingham), the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (University of Surrey) and Transport for London.  It summaries the current best practice for how green infrastructure can reduce public exposure to air pollution in the urban environment.

Research Highlight Spring 2019: Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics

The world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sinks are found in young temperate and boreal forests. More than half of the carbon sink in the world’s forests is in areas where the trees are relatively young – under 140 years old. These trees have typically ‘regrown’ on land previously used for agriculture, or cleared by fire or harvest. Using a new combination of observations of forest age and computer modelling, Tom Pugh and co-workers showed that it is the young age that drives half of carbon uptake in young forests, with the remainder driven by CO2 fertilisation.
Pugh, T. A. M. et al (2019). Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(10), 4382-4387. doi:10.1073/pnas.1810512116

Tom Pugh Uni of BirminghamResearch Highlight Autumn 2018: Native and introduced species respond differently to forest loss and fragmentation 

GEES researchers (Tom Matthews [Birmingham Fellow] and Jon Sadler), working in collaboration with colleagues from the Azores, used a novel time-series dataset of arthropods sampled in native forest fragments in the Azores to test whether native species and introduced / alien species respond differently to forest loss. The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, has suffered extensive deforestation and fragmentation since human colonisation of the islands in the 15th Century. The islands are also an important stopping point along various shipping routes and have thus suffered a large number of non-native species introductions, which in turn has resulted in the extinction of several native taxa on the islands. However, despite the surge in interest in invasion biology in recent years, we still lack a clear understanding of whether native and non-native species respond differently to forest fragmentation; differences which may have important implications for conservation and biodiversity management.

To address this research gap, a set of nine 50m x 50m plots were set up within native forest fragments on the islands. Arthropods were sampled in the plots using SLAM traps (see Fig. 1), and the traps were emptied and replaced every three months for five years, providing a comprehensive ecological time-series dataset. Sampled individuals were identified and categorised as native or introduced (in relation to the Azores). It was found that introduced species had much higher rates of turnover in the forest fragments relative to native species, i.e. the introduced species were frequently going locally extinct and re-colonising fragments from adjacent anthropogenic habitats (e.g. agricultural land). The implications of this for biodiversity conservation and management are significant. The high rate of stochastic turnover of non-native species indicates that attempts to simply reduce the populations of non-native species in situ within native habitats may not be successful. A more efficient management strategy would be to interrupt source-sink dynamics by improving the harsh boundaries between native and adjacent anthropogenic habitats.

Matthews T., Sadler J. Curvalho R., Nunes R, Borges P., (2018) Differential temporal beta‐diversity patterns of native and non‐native arthropod species in a fragmented native forest landscape (2018) Ecography, 41: 1–10, 2018

 Thomas Matthews

        Image above: Example SLAM trap in a plot within a native forest fragment on Terceira Island, Azores

Research highlight Spring 2018: Using drones to understand the impact of riparian tree shading on stream temperature

University of Birmingham’s Steve Dugdale and David Hannah, working in conjunction with Marine Scotland (Iain Malcom), have developed a novel technique for quantifying the impact of riparian tree cover on river temperature. River temperature is highly important to freshwater organisms; and there are concerns that climate change could render some rivers less suitable for native UK fish species. River managers across the UK are planting trees in an attempt to shade rivers. However, understanding the exact effects of riparian woodland on stream temperature requires improved data on tree cover, which can be difficult to obtain, especially in remote locations. The new technique, which integrates drone-based 3D mapping of tree heights with a computer model that simulates the shading on rivers, is capable of clearly determining the extent to which tree cover moderates stream temperatures. This new tool will help river scientists and managers to develop strategies for adapting rivers to climate change.  

Dugdale, S.J., Hannah, D.M., & Malcolm, I.A. (2017). River temperature modelling: A review of process-based approaches and future directions. Earth-Science Reviews, 175, 97-113


Research highlight Autumn 2017: Storm events and water quality

Blaen et al (2017), 'High-frequency monitoring of catchment nutrient exports reveals highly variable storm event responses and dynamic source zone activation' , Journal of Geophysical Research. We know that storm events can cause rapid increases in river flow, but not their impact on water quality. We used high-frequency sensors to monitor nitrate and dissolved organic carbon during 29 storm events in the Wood Brook stream at Mill Haft. Storm events were important periods of nutrient export, particularly when intense rain fell on wet ground. Our results are important to understand the implications of climate change for river water quality. 


Research Highlight Spring 2017: BIFoR stream featured

Dr Phil Blaen, a research fellow with BIFoR, was lead author of a paper published in Science of the Total Environment.  Data from a high-frequency stream monitoring station installed at the BIFoR  FACE experimental research facility helped contribute to this paper which looked at monitoring strategies for our UK rivers.  Excessive nutrient concentrations in our UK rivers threaten aquatic ecosystem structure and functioning and can pose substantial risks to human health!  The paper summarises that there is call for the development of monitoring systems that can adapt in real-time to rapid changes in environmental conditions. DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.116

Research Highlight Autumn 2016: Crop browning, forests greening

Tom Pugh contributed to four studies published recently in Nature Journals. Using state-of-the-art vegetation modelling that Tom brings with him from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, three of the papers investigate how global agriculture will be affected by climate change. Negative effects of climate on yield were widespread, however, crop growth potential may increase in regions which currently contribute little to global production, and elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration could lead to large water savings in arid regions. The final paper describes observations indicating that leaf area has been increasing globally over the last three decades, amounting to a "greening of the planet". This effect was overwhelmingly attributed to the effects of elevated CO2 concentration by an ensemble of state-of-the-art models. Whether such a "greening" effect translates into increased carbon storage in the biosphere remains an open question.
DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3115         DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2995  DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3004        
DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1260810.1038/ncomms12608

 Research Highlight Spring 2016: by Dr Scott Hayward 

pararge-aegeriaPararge aegeria
By Quartl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Animals choose their places to live, their habitats, based on trade-offs between access to food, shelter, a comfortable environment, availability of mates, and so on. Humans change habitats, sometimes directly (eg through management) and sometimes indirectly (eg through global climate change). This study looks at how habitat associations of the speckled wood butterfly, Pararge aegeria, in the UK have changed over time in line with variation in specific aspects of climate (temperature and moisture availability). These changing patterns in habitat associations reflect the butterfly's responses to local climate ('microclimatic') differences in its favoured (woodland) habitat versus more open habitats.

We find that the butterfly distribution changes from being predominantly a woodland specialist where harsh climate limits the butterfly's performance, to being a habitat generalist in places with more favourable large-scale climates. We showed increased generalisation in places with warm winters compared with cool winters and places with warm and wet summers compared with warm and dry summers.

Our results imply that animals may not show simple relationships between their preferred habitat and climate, but may instead have complex interactions even within the core of their range. This understanding of habitat is important because, in patchy landscapes, the viability of populations will depend on having habitat sizes and connectedness that allows for relationships of the kind we have uncovered. Species may be more vulnerable in some parts of their range than others, with clear implications for conservation, pest control, and pollinator support.

Pateman, R. M., Thomas, C. D., Hayward, S. A. L. and Hill, J. K. (2015), Macro- and microclimatic interactions can drive variation in species' habitat associations. Glob Change Biol. doi:10.1111/gcb.13056


Dr Jason Hilton


Dr Jason Hilton is a paleobotanist and evolutionary plant biologist providing a deep time perspective to BIFoR.  Below, is a taste of his recent paper in the prestigious American Journal of Botany.

Fossil seed-cone provides insight into evolution of modern conifers. 

The conifer clade has a rich fossil record extending back over 300 million years, yet our understanding of crown-group conifer evolution has been constrained by a lack of well-preserved fossils.   A mid-Jurassic locality on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, has yielded a seed-cone that constitutes the earliest anatomically preserved evidence for the diverse conifer family Cupressaceae. Results are now being analysed to see how the structure of conifer cones have changed through time in response to changing environments and climate.

Spencer, A. R. T., G. Mapes, R. M. Bateman, J. Hilton, and G. W. Rothwell (2015) Middle Jurassic evidence for the origin of Cupressaceae: a paleobotanical context for the roles of regulatory genetics and development in the evolution of conifer seed cones, American Journal of Botany,  Vol 102, No 6 June 2015

Professor Ian Fairchild

golgotha-cave-280x270Karri forest viewed from Golgotha Cave, Margaret River, Western Australia

Two recently published papers (Borsato et al., 2015* and Treble et al, 2015**) illustrate the nature of cave research in which Ian is involved. The first paper gives an overview of the preservation of records of late 20th century sulphur pollution in the Alps, whilst the second is one of a series of papers on the climatically sensitive region of SW Western Australia which is seeing warming and drying much faster than predicted by computer models.

As part of his Australian Research Council-funded joint project with Andy Baker and Pauline Treble on fire effects on karst, and linked also to hydrological collaborations between Chris Bradley and Pauline, he focuses on the value of a mass balance approach to understanding evolution of chemistry of shallow groundwater that can be fossilized in stalagmites. It turns out that in the SW Australia region the waxing and waning of the forest biomass is key and its behaviour in relation to drying and fires may be discernable from speleothem records.

*Borsato, A., Frisia, S., Wynn, P., Fairchild, I.J. & Miorandi, R. 2015 Sulphate concentration in cave dripwater and speleothems: long-term trends and overview of its significance as proxy of environmental processes and climate forcing. Quaternary Science Reviews, 127, 48-60.

**Treble, P.C., Fairchild, I.J., Griffiths, A., Baker, A., Meredith, K.M., Wood, A. and McGuire, E. 2015 Impacts of cave air ventilation and prior calcite precipitation on Golgotha Cave dripwater chemistry, southwest Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 127, 61-72.