Long-term reporting

A big chunk of my work focuses on long-term monitoring, of vegetation and (micro)climate. It highlights the importance of this continuity, and many of the most important conclusions we are taking – and especially will take in the near future – depend on this persistence in the field.

Yet persistence is far from easy. Repeating your fieldwork year after year, finding the necessary funds, time, people and expertise to keep going, it is time and again a challenge. It is also very hard to plan for, as who knows where one will be five years from now? Especially in the highly volatile conditions of an early career in science in the 21st century (but that’s a whole different story).

And yet, we persist. What also persisted, is this website. So dear to me since the very start of my PhD, I managed to keep going the stories here year after year, despite the waining interest in ‘macroblogs’ in favour of microblog platforms like Twitter. What’s even better: my audience is steady. I saw a continuous increase in visitors throughout my PhD up till 2018, when I defended. Then, as time availability for writing reduced, yet content got perhaps more interesting (I was publishing more papers, for one), the audience has kept popping by.

Yearly visitors to http://www.the3dlab.org, formerly called lembrechtsjonas.wordpress.com

In one of the first posts I wrote on this blog, I warned the reader that climate and land use change were awakening a sleeping dragon in the Arctic.

It is my job to warn the world for this sleeping dragon.
It is my job to find a way to preserve his night’s rest.
It is my job to predict his next move, so we are not unexpectedly catched by his swirling tail.

I still find that beautiful. And I do believe that 2013-me would be very proud of the job I did since then.

Stay tuned in 2023, for more!

Majestic view over the mountains in northern Norway, the land of the sleeping dragon.
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Microclimate symposium

Truth be told, we just had a little pot of money that needed spending. That pot of money came from a successful application to the University of Antwerp to enhance communication between universities.

Now, communication between universities, that’s my kind of thing, and we realized we had just the set-up at hand: the high density of microclimate research groups in Belgium and beyond. A quick invitation to our friends in Leuven, Ghent, Liège and Amiens (also basically Flanders, no?) immediately gave a positive response: we all agreed that it would be great to sit together for a few days and learn from each others successes, deep dives and mistakes.

To make things even more attractive, we lured in some big names from abroad, and soon we had a workshop programme buzzying with potential. This, combined with a perfect location and host lab (the ForNaLab at Ghent University, embedded in its own research forest, and the workshop was destined to be successful.

Outdoor forest heating experiment – basically just two steps from the offices of the lucky ForNaLab-scientists!

And I know, we had a fantastic microclimate conference only recently, but we felt there was room for something else: a smaller group of people, with more room to go in-depth on the tricky stuff. Especially the younger members of the labs could benefit from a bit more time to explain their work, their goals and dreams, and the things they struggle with. Together, we might have some answers that could propel their work forward.

The research tower in the forest is positioned just in between a few different species of trees, for optimal monitoring.

So that’s how we got to spend two days in a forested environment outside of Ghent, and how I got another notebook full of great ideas and suggestions for the future.

Thinking, planning, dreaming and scheming

But that’ll be news for another day – and another year most likely!

Host professor Pieter De Frenne explaining their ‘open top chambers’ – climate warming experiments
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MIREN meets in Chile

A few hundred kilometers south of Santiago de Chile, nestled in a green valley at the foot of a string of snow-clad volcanoes, lies the ‘Suisandina lodge’, a place that breaths hospitality, with all facilities a mountain ecologist needs to spark a good scientific discussion. It is there, between the chickens, lama, and friendly-but-sad-looking dogs, that our latest MIREN Steering Committee meeting took place.

The native Araucaria and Nothofagus forests in the region are simply breathtaking

MIREN, that is the Mountain Invasion Research Network, the network in which I have been involved since my master’s thesis in 2012 (a loooooong time ago, mind you!). Since 2007 (and I thus since 2012), the network has been maintaining long-term (every 5 years) vegetation monitoring along mountain roads and trails in mountain regions across the globe, with already 17 global regions in 2018 and a whole bunch of new ones being added now in 2022.

Alpine violin species flowering delicately

Such a global network needs an occasional global meeting to put all noses in the same direction. While we have all been working very hard with our survey data from our respective field sites and offices, getting a bunch of people in the same – inspiring – environment for a few days is what is needed for true momentum building.

The team at this years’ MIREN meeting, in a beautiful setting of Araucaria trees and volcanoes. We brought in the MIREN Steering Committee and invited some ‘fresh blood’ to spice up discussions. Picture by Aníbal Pauchard

As you can imagine, this was thus an inspiring week! Discussions on new paper ideas, group coding sessions on long-awaited analyses, and inspirational dreaming about future plans and project ideas, we had it all, dressed with a delicious sauce of Araucaria forests and Andean volcanoes.

The main conclusion of this all was clear: there aren’t many networks out there like our precious MIREN. Global long-term vegetation monitoring in mountains is – to the best of our knowledge – limited to us and our good friends over at GLORIA, who focus on vegetation surveys on mountaintops. That we managed to maintain this monitoring effort for 15 years already despite the lack of any significant funding for the network is a wonderful achievement. Seeing the enthusiasm of existing regions to resurvey, and new regions to establish their own gradients, we are definitely still on the rise!

Refreshing the mind on the young slopes of a volcano

Interested to join the fun? Check out all information on how to do a MIREN survey on our website!

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Frontiers in soil ecology

Story accompanying the new paper Eisenhauer et al. (2022) Frontiers in soil ecology—Insights from the World Biodiversity Forum 2022.

There was an almost tangible sense of urgency at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, last June. A string of the world’s experts on biodiversity research gathered there under a pleasant mountain sun to discuss the state of and – perhaps even more important – the way forward for our biodiversity in a world under pressure from all sides. A story significantly grimmer than the sunny landscape!

I joined the session on soil biodiversity, that subset of biodiversity hiding underneath our feet and therefore even more obscure than the plants and animals we see aboveground. The consensus of that session was cloudy, yet with clear rays of that sun still shining through: our understanding of soil biodiversity, its drivers, and functioning is rapidly increasing, although there is still a long, long way to go.

To make that long road ahead more concrete for scientists and policymakers alike, we decided to take a step back, have a good thorough discussion and write down the main issues in front of us. The result of that effort is now published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture and Environment, summarizing the eight most urgent frontiers in global soil biodiversity to urge the international scientific community to help tackle them.

So what are these big tasks to tackle urgently? They range from 1) data integration, building on the recent splurge of global databases and products to create better integration of soil biodiversity monitoring across the globe, over 2) the mechanistic understanding of soil biodiversity (causal inference) to 3) the creation of more accurate scenarios of soil biodiversity in an uncertain future and 4) the increased understanding of other aspects of biodiversity (traits, genetic diversity, hidden diversity)…

They include 5) the need for better global data on drivers of soil biodiversity (from microclimate to heavy metals in the soil) and 6) the call for increased global collaboration and exchange of knowledge, e.g. surrounding the precious and rare taxonomic knowledge of many obscure soil species groups.

Finally, they highlighted 7) the need for the application of our increasing knowledge in conservation and 8) improved communication of our knowledge – and needs – to public and policy to get to that final and most critical step: actually protecting that soil biodiversity before it is lost.

These eight frontiers will need to be overcome in the near future to ensure the conservation of soils for the next generations. Critical, as with the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937):‘The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself’.

Soils have unfortunately long been neglected and only now our understanding of – and enthusiasm for – them is making a comeback. Indeed, the significance of soils has now moved more and more into the scientific focus, finally changing from a niche topic with many specialized journals and conferences to a mainstream topic in ecology, earth‐system sciences, and nature conservation over the last two decades.

Let’s keep it there, where it belongs!

The Swiss mountains, home to a fabulous diversity of landscapes and soils
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Are non-native plants adapting to city life?

With chapter 4 now published, the now finished PhD of Charly Géron has created quite the storyline on how non-native plants are invading our urban environments!

In his first paper, we found out that alien plant species in European cities originated from warmer and drier native ranges, as they are often much better at ease in the warm and often drier climates in our cities than many native plants. The urban heat island in action!

Pauwlonia tomentosa, one of our studied tree species, at ease on a rooftop

In the second ‘Géron et al.’, we dove deeper into the performance of alien plants in the city, with the help of 6 species from the Asteraceae family, one of the families of plant species with the most global invaders. A hitherto unresolved question was how stressful the urban environments become during climate extremes such as heatwaves and droughts. Do such episodes still favor alien plant species, or set them back? The results were a tad surprising: all studied species, regardless of their climate of origin and thus their love for heat or cold, showed fewer signs of stress during a heatwave when shaded (by nature or concrete alike).

Interestingly, this positive effect of shading was found again when focussing on woody invaders, again both for species from warmer ánd from cooler origins. Interestingly, however, we did see a clear contrast in WHERE along the urban-rural gradient species were growing: those from warmer origins preferred the city, those from cooler origins the countryside. Yet despite this clear segregation, all of them were remarkably less stressed when trees or buildings provided them with shade during one of Western Europe’s recent hot and dry summers!

So now, there is Géron et al. number 4, and it takes us even deeper into the story. We wondered if the strong variation in environmental conditions along the urban-rural gradient (hot/dry vs. cool/moist) would result in natural selection within a species: would populations from urban environments perform better in warm and dry conditions than their nephews from the same species yet coming from cool environments? Pineapple* weed (Matricaria discoidea), a tiny Asteraceae plant, came to the rescue.

Pineapple weed in its favorite environment: cracks! (c) Charly Géron

We harvested seeds from several populations from urban and rural environments across Belgium, and put them in growth chambers with either urban or rural climate and/or soils. With a smart experimental design (‘a simulated reciprocal common garden experiment’, in scientific terms), we could disentangle performance differences between the different populations and, very important, if these were due to plasticity, natural selection, or an influence of the mother plant.

Racks of tiny test tubes with seeds of pineapple weed – ready to be subjected to urban climate conditions in the growth chamber. Working with small plants is definitely convenient from the space-perspective! (c) Charly Géron

So, what did we find here? First of all: things are pretty complicated in the realm of population genetics, as tons of things interact with each other. Secondly: most of the observed variation in the growth chamber was related to the conditions of the mother plant (working through e.g. seed size), while our little pineappleweeds from the same populations also showed substantial plasticity when subjected to different environments. The ‘holy grail’ we were looking for – local adaptation, populations changing genetically as a result of the urban environment – could however not be found.

And thus: are non-native species adapting to a city life? No clear genetic adaptation could be observed in our case, at least nothing that resulted in a different performance. But that’s just our little stone on the pile of science – others might find other things in other environments, as so often in ecology.

The 4 papers in a row:

Géron et al. 2021a. Biological invasions

Géron et al. 2021b. Ecology and Evolution

Géron et al. 2022a. Urban forestry & urban greening

Géron et al. 20202b. Plant ecology

*Pineapple weed does smell quite nicely like pineapple!

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Scicomm award

We won!

The CurieuzeNeuzen team is one of the winners of the Annual Science Communication Prize of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium! The prize is awarded to researchers who are committed to creative and accessible science communication.

CurieuzeNeuzen in de Tuin was praised by the jury for the ‘clever communication campaign and innovative Internet-of-Things technology’, with which we reach a large audience, and thus ‘widely raise awareness about an important climate theme: heat and drought’.

This would of course not have been possible without our partners and enthusiastic participants: so this price is definitely for all of you!

Nice extra: we are still in the running to take home the EOS audience award: you can vote via eoswetenschap.eu.

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