Major advances in data availability, together with recent advances in computational modeling and data analysis techniques, are enabling Microsoft Research to shed light on climate change and the implications for European forest dynamics.
New models to help understand European forests and climate change
|Program Fast Facts
Forests play a vital role in reducing CO2 but understanding and measuring the impact of climate change on forests has posed serious challenges.
A team of scientists at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, is developing advanced computational models to predict forest dynamics.
- In five years, the project will provide important data on the relationship of climate change and forests globally.
- This new understanding could enable scientists and policy makers to develop new and appropriate forest policies to address climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity issues.
Climate change has become a pressing issue for businesses, world leaders and society at large. Human carbon-intensive activities are recognized almost unanimously by scientists as contributing to it and society is trying to find ways to tackle this immense challenge. It is well known that trees play an important role in the carbon cycle: trees store as much carbon as is present in the atmosphere and forests are home to two-thirds of Earth’s biodiversity. Such facts are critical to understanding the ramifications of climate change and how we can best respond.
But unlike other key factors such as ocean dynamics, the effects of forest dynamics—how tree populations interact and impact the environment—remain a mystery. That is changing, though. A recent influx of data from nations all over the world, together with recent advances in computational modeling and data analysis techniques, is enabling scientists at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, to shed light on what happens to forests over time and what the implications are for other terrestrial life forms, including humans. In 2008, a Microsoft Research team led by Drew Purves published two papers in the prestigious journal ‘Science’ on that subject. “Forests are made of trees, and trees are made of carbon,” Purves says. “And we know that forests are processing and storing large amounts of carbon. When trees grow, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood but eventually, every tree dies, and the wood rots or burns, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s a potential for a huge effect of that cycling and storage of carbon on the future of the earth’s climate.”
The solution to better understand forest dynamics, Purves suggests, lies in Dynamic Global Vegetation Models (DGVMs), which simulate the distribution, the physiology,and the biogeochemistry of forests and other vegetation at global scales, under present, historic, or future climates. DGVMs predict how, over such long time scales, those distributions might change across the globe. Rain forests, savannas or grasslands could shrink or expand and such models could predict how much carbon is exchanged between vegetation and the atmosphere.
New Dynamic Global Vegetation Models could give us truly invaluable information to help manage the world’s forests and understand their impact on our climate.The problem with such models is the uncertainty. Some models say that forests will soak up gigantic amounts of CO2, thereby acting as a break to climate change, while other models say that because of higher temperatures, forests will dry and then release huge amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus acting as an accelerator of climate change. That’s what the scientists at Microsoft Research are trying to solve. The idea is to develop a new generation of DGVMs based more closely on how forest ecosystems actually work,using lots of data.
“We suggest that the convergence of recently developed mathematical models, improved data sources, and new methods in computational data analysis could produce a step change in the realism of these models,” Purves says. “That would give us truly invaluable information to help manage the world’s forests and understand their impact on our climate.”
Everybody in the world could benefit from these new models, particularly forest managers, environmentalists, conservationists, and governments that will need to form environmental and even economic policy based on predicted climate change. Developing the right model is critical. “The stakes are high” states Purves. “It is imperative, that we create the tools and science to accurately understand the reaction of ecosystems to climate changes and other forces—not just for plants and animals, but for our children and succeeding generations.”
ABOUT MICROSOFT RESEARCH CAMBRIDGE
Microsoft Research Cambridge was founded in 1997 and now numbers over 100 employees. The Cambridge lab conducts basic computer science research on a wide variety of topics, including machine learning, security, information retrieval, operating systems, programming techniques, and networking. Microsoft Research Cambridge maintains close ties to the University of Cambridge and the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory.