A 'forest time machine'

Testing CO2 levels in a forest
Earthwatch
Earthwatch is working collaboratively to help businesses reach the Sustainable Development Goals through hands-on science and engagement.

Earthwatch’s research on climate change addresses the need to understand how forests will respond to and take up carbon under a future UK climate.

The UK is the hottest it has been for 100 years, average temperatures have increased by 0.8C, and rainfall is up 20 per cent compared with the 30-year period ending in 1990.

New evidence has also shown that climate change driven by humans has made the Europe-wide heatwave experienced this summer ‘twice as likely’ in future.

Scientists have most recently referred to the planet as ‘Hothouse Earth’ – while this may sound like a 1970s rock band, it is in fact a serious concept that means we could soon cross a threshold leading to more extreme temperatures and rising seas in the centuries to come. 

Sustainable development

Environmental charity, Earthwatch Europe, enables science and business to collaborate alongside the government to build resilience and limit climate-related hazards and natural disasters that impact people, the environment and the economy.

A recent report entitled ‘Measuring Up’ revealed for the first time how the UK is performing against its UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), representing the most comprehensive review of the current situation in the UK. Whilst there is a great deal to celebrate, the findings reveal that the most vulnerable people and places in our society are being left behind.

A closer look at the chapter on climate action (SDG 13), authored by Earthwatch, predicts that the UK will experience a number of significant consequences from climate change.

  • By 2050, heat-related deaths are due to rise in the UK by 250 per cent, as higher average and extreme temperatures are predicted to impact the UK
  • Flooding will increase in both frequency and severity; an estimated 1.8 million people currently live in areas with an annual risk of flooding higher than once in every 75 years and this figure is projected the rise to between 2.6 and 3.3 million people affected by the 2050s
  • There are potential risks to food production and the resilience of UK food supply chains, although conflicting views exist on the potential impacts. The UK Food Security Assessment is urgently due for renewal

 

Of course, the SDGs cannot be achieved by individual organisations or government alone. ‘Measuring Up’reveals the interlinkages between the targets, highlighting the importance of working together, and is designed to help organisations identify where they are having, and could have, an impact. 

The SDGs give businesses a globally accepted and practical definition of sustainable development. Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs explicitly call on all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation to solve sustainable development challenges. 

Building resilience 

Engaging teams with issues of climate change, as well as proactively embedding sustainable practices across their operations, is key.

Companies that align their priorities with the SDGs are likely to improve trust among stakeholders, strengthen their license to operate, reduce business risks and build resilience to future costs or legislation.

Investing in the achievement of SDGs will strengthen knowledge amongst employees and foster a more skilled and engaged workforce. 

Businesses can create their own opportunities by working with like-minded partners on projects that have a direct impact.  Earthwatch works with a number of corporate partners to help minimise their impact on the natural world.

Its novel programmes use a mixture of science and engagement to connect employees with nature and inspire lasting action to improve the environment, both in and outside of work.

Earthwatch’s research on climate change addresses the need to understand how forests will respond to and take up carbon under a future UK climate. The research, involving over 1,200 participants to date, is taking place at two, unique long-term studies in Oxfordshire and Staffordshire woodlands. 

'Carbon budget'

Oxford University is partnering with Earthwatch to investigate how carbon uptake in the ancient woodland, Wytham Woods, is responding to variations in climate over a 10-year period.

The project, which is monitoring 12,500 trees, is the only one of its kind in Europe and is investigating how carbon uptake in the woodland responds to medium-term variations in climate, delivering important, detailed information on how the carbon budget of a woodland responds over longer timescales. 

Several droughts throughout the period of the study have revealed how strongly water availability impacts tree growth – particularly that of the ash tree, which is the most common tree in the woodland.

As our summers get drier and older trees begin to succumb to a number of diseases, the likelihood is that the future rate of carbon uptake in this forest – and forests like it – may decline.  Existing global vegetation models are not sufficiently nuanced to take into account the slower growth rates of ageing forests. The study in Wytham is one of the few which has the potential to deliver evidence on this. 

Hands-on science

The hope of the research by Earthwatch in Staffordshire - a study conducted in partnership with the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) - is to deliver a definitive answer as to whether mature forests will continue to store and take excess carbon that we are releasing into the atmosphere.

It utilises a Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) facility worth fifteen million pounds that raises the carbon dioxide concentration of entire woodland patches using a computer-controlled network of vents set vertically within the tree canopy, which stimulate the conditions predicted for 2050. 

The research within this ‘forest time machine’ in Staffordshire works by examining tree growth rates using fine-scale growth bands, together with investigating changes in rates of leaf litter breakdown on the forest floor.

In addition to undertaking hands-on science, participants learn about the issues that affect the climate and the wider environment.

There is no doubt that building resilience and limiting climate hazards and natural disasters would be strengthened by the UK government taking the opportunity, now, to set clear priorities and strategy for the future.

Collaborative approach

However, key projects like the Earthwatch-led woodland research in Oxfordshire and Staffordshire are only possible because of the collaboration between scientific research and business support.

Business supports these projects through employee participation and data gathering that allows vast quantities of data to be collected that would otherwise be impossible for a small group of researchers.

Earthwatch in turn shares knowledge, learning and experience with employees, ultimately to help business to minimise their impact on the natural world and take the action necessary for a sustainable planet.

Through these partnerships, we develop sustainability leaders, inspire employees to take action and deliver business-relevant science.

Discover how Earthwatch’s immersive learning programmes engage employees and stakeholders of its business partners and learn how your organisation can get involved with Earthwatch on its dedicated employee engagement page.

These Authors

Fiona Franklin is senior corporate development manager at Earthwatch Europe. Alan Jones is research manager at Earthwatch Europe

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