The forest in the future
In woodland in Staffordshire, six towering metal structures bathe the area in the CO2 concentrations expected on Earth in 2050. The experiment aims to find out how forest ecosystems will cope with our planet’s changing atmosphere, writes Anna Gardner
Covering more than 30% of the terrestrial biosphere, forests are essential for a plethora of ecosystem services. One of these is the carbon sequestration of up to 20–30% of all anthropogenic CO2. Since the 1750s, atmospheric CO2 has almost doubled due to a combination of burning fossil fuels (causing around 90% of the rise) and deforestation (responsible for around 10% of the rise).
Currently, the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere is around 407ppm, but climate models predict CO2 will continue to rise and far exceed this figure in the near future.1 Understanding how the terrestrial environment will respond to rapidly rising CO2 levels is therefore vital in order to plan how society can adapt to climate change.
WOODLAND WONDER No single laboratory experiment – or even an infinite series of such experiments – can test the response of a complex ecosystem such as a forest to changes in atmospheric composition. Whole ecosystem tests are required to study system-level responses. This is where the high-tech ‘sci-fi forest’ at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) comes in. BIFoR’s free-air carbon enrichment (FACE) facility, which is part of the University of Birmingham, is undertaking
The experiment will run for a minimum of 10 years, which is essential for the study of long-lived species a unique outdoor experiment to expose whole, intact patches of temperate deciduous forest to the CO2 concentrations that will pervade the planet by about 2050.
Matched by only one other forest-scale facility in the world (Western Sydney University’s EucFACE in Australia2) and stepping forward from previous FACE facilities – built on agricultural fields and into which juvenile trees were planted – BIFoR FACE has been built into existing ‘old growth’ forest. In this way, an existing plant and soil community in its own hydrological and climate setting is the experimental subject.
From the roadside, the facility looks like typical British woodland, but once you’re through the gates you can see this is no ordinary woodland walk. The FACE facility has been ‘smuggled’ into mature oak-and-hazel woodland in the heart of Staffordshire, taking particular care not to disturb the existing woodland canopy and the delicate soil structure.
FACE experiments allow for large areas of ecosystems to be exposed to enriched levels of carbon dioxide while maintaining other biotic and abiotic processes. It is essentially a laboratory experiment that has been taken outside and applied not to a leaf, or even a tree, but to half-a-dozen large trees, a dozen smaller trees, hundreds of ground plants, tens of thousands of invertebrates,