Forest ecology in a changing world: Effective ground-based methods for monitoring temperate broadleaved forest ecosystem dynamics in relation to climate change
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The impacts of climate change on temperate forests are predicted to accelerate, with widespread implications for forest biodiversity and function. Remote sensing has provided insights into regional patterns of vegetation dynamics, and experimental studies have demonstrated impacts of specific changes on individual species. However, forests are diverse and complex ecosystems. To understand how different species in different forests respond to interacting environmental pressures, widespread ground-based monitoring is needed. The only practical way to achieve this is through the involvement of non-professional researchers, i.e., with citizen science. However, many techniques used to identify subtle changes in forests require expensive equipment and professional expertise. This thesis aimed to identify practical methods for citizen scientists to collect useful data on forest ecosystem dynamics in relation to climate change. Methods for monitoring tree phenology and canopy-understorey interactions were the main focus, as tree phenology exerts strong control on understorey light and forest biodiversity, and is already responding to climate change.
The response of understorey vegetation to canopy closure in four woodlands from a single region of England (Devon) was examined in detail. These geographically close woodlands differed considerably in their composition and seasonal dynamics. The spring period was particularly important for herb-layer development, and small variations in canopy openness had important effects on herb-layer cover and composition. This work highlights the need to monitor a range of different woodlands at the regional scale, with sufficient resolution to pick up small but crucial differences through time. Citizen scientists could help to collect such data by monitoring herb-layer cover and changes in the abundance of key species, alongside monitoring the overstorey canopy.
The spring leaf phenology of four canopy trees (ash, beech, oak and sycamore) were monitored intensively in one woodland using a range of methods: counts, percentage estimates and photography. First budburst and leaf expansion dates were compared with estimates of leaf expansion timing and rate, derived from time-series data using logistic growth models. Frequently used first-event dates were potentially misleading due to high variation in leaf development rates within and between species. Percentage estimates and counts produced similar estimates of leaf expansion timing and rate. A photo-derived greenness index produced similar estimates of timing, but not rate, and was compromised by practical issues of photographing individual crowns in closed canopy woodland. Citizen science should collect time-series data instead of frequently-used first event dates―visual observations offer the most practical way to do this, but further work is needed to test reliability with citizen scientists. Given high intra- and inter-species variation in tree phenology, whole forest canopies need to be monitored to infer canopy closure timing.
Canopy openness was assessed using sophisticated hemispherical photography and a range of low-cost alternatives, across four Devon woodlands over a year. Visual estimates and ordinary photography were too coarse to identify fine-scale variation in canopies. Smartphone fisheye photography analysed with free software was identified as a reliable surrogate for estimating relative, though not absolute, canopy openness. The method has high potential as a citizen science tool, as different phone models and users gave similar canopy openness estimates.
In a detailed follow-up study, smartphone fisheye photography, hemispherical photography and visual observations of leaf expansion were used every other day to characterise spring canopy development. Logistic growth models estimated canopy closure timing and rate. Visual observations identified much earlier canopy development than either photographic method. Smartphone fisheye photography performed comparably to hemispherical photography. There is good potential for practical application of smartphone fisheye photography, as similar canopy closure estimates were gained from photos taken once every two weeks.
The research in this thesis identifies a range of methods suitable for widespread monitoring of forest ecosystem dynamics in relation to climate change. Developing a smartphone app for automatic analysis and submission of canopy images will be an important next step to enabling widespread use. A pilot project is underway to begin testing methods with citizen scientists. Further research into data quality with citizen scientists is needed before the methods can be rolled out widely with confidence.
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