Friday, May 31, 2013

Back to Borneo: Richard Primack helps a team of scientists research the impacts of climate change on Malaysian rain forests

Posted by Richard Primack

Figure 1. The field team poses for a photo at Bako National Park.

At the end of April 2013 I left behind my fieldwork on flowering times in Concord, MA and flew across the Pacific to re-connect with my old research project in the rain forests of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. 

A little background information is necessary first: In 1965, Prof. Peter Ashton (now a retired Harvard professor) and the Sarawak Forest Department established permanent research plots in primary forest to investigate factors affecting tree species diversity. These forests have exceptionally large numbers of tree species, with many of the biggest trees belonging to the economically important dipterocarp family. In the 1980s and early 1990s, my students and I helped in the 5-year re-censuses of plots at Bako National Park and Lambir National Park, using the data to calculate growth rates and mortality rates of trees which we could compare with nearby selectively logged forests and tree plantations. 

Presently, these forests are being re-censused by scientists from Leeds University in the UK and the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia and local forestry workers to gain insight into the impacts of climate change on tropical forests:  Are trees now growing faster due to the fertilizing effects of higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide? Or will trees have a slower growth rate and increased mortality rate due to higher temperatures and increased drought stress? 

My key task was to show them how we took measurements in the past, so they could replicate our methods. The results of the current study will affect ongoing governmental and scientific discussions about the value of tropical forest conservation in lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  The study also illustrates the importance of well-documented, long-term studies to address contemporary issues. 

Figure 2. Field biologist takes a measurement of tree diameter at a painted point. Note that this measuring point has been moved up to about 2 m to avoid buttresses.

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