Grey day in the field

Yesterday, we spent a pretty grey day in the east of Flanders to dig up microclimate loggers. The view: heavy clouds on top of the shades of brown provided by the late-winter heathland, as is so typical for the region.

The world in the east of the country gives of a bit of an otherworldly vibe, especially when the heathland gives way to the famous ‘slag hills’ of the old coal mines, where one might expect a Mars Rover behind every corner.

Temperatures of these otherworldly environments will be very interesting to compare with the rest of the region, and those dug-up loggers will thus be a fantastic contribution to our upcoming Flemish soil microclimate maps. For that, this one fieldwork day was also just a small teaser, as from next week, the citizen science project will get into full swing, with 5100 sensors installed all across Flanders.

More on that very very soon…

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Preparation time

This weekend, we’ll be (finally!) launching the call for our giant citizen science project (more on that here). Truly a mastodont of a project, and that is reflected in the numbers. I decided to look back at my time tracking data, from the first spark of the idea of the project till today, two days before its launch.

Hours per week spent on preparing the project, from the first idea back in spring 2019, over the writing of the proposal, the first trials in lab and field, and the preparations for the big launch in January.

Turns out I already spent close to 300 hours on this project alone, since the spring of 2019. While this is not a surprise to me, it is intriguing to see how work effort has come in three increasingly big waves:

1) idea development and proposal writing, after which a big slump while we wait for grant approval.
2) Trials in the field and the lab, exploring what works and what not, how data will look and how to improve the workflow. Followed again by a little drop over summer, while sensors where out in the field ‘doing their thing’.
3) In autumn, we picked up where we left of, started working with that data from the trial, and got into full swing for preparations towards the big big launch.

And that’s just me, mind you, I’m just one link in the chain. Luckily, as I for sure lack the resources to keep tackling increasingly big waves for this project, without loosing track of all other things I’m working on!

Interestingly, this also nicely highlights the lifespan of projects. Spring 2019 feels like ages ago, but if you want to make a genius scientific idea work, persistence is the key. So please, check back in with us over 2 or 3 years, when perhaps first published results of this 2019 idea start coming in!

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Small forests, big benefits

Since I started hiking along Flemish backroads with my little girl – our favourite activity – we got to meet already lots of little patches of forest in a matrix of agriculture. I must say: nothing pleases me more than wandering in and out of forests, with different views around every corner and landscape paintings opening up to you around every corner.

From the forest into the open, my all-time favourite kind of experience of the Flemish countryside

However, one could wonder what the value of these little forest patches is. Wouldn’t it be better if we would have big forests, with less edges and a big and undisturbed core? Surely, this ancient state of forests should be preferable? Turned out I wasn’t the first one to ask that question while strolling through nature’s best. A recent publication from the ‘SmallFOREST’-project , a European-wide research network by some of my favourite colleagues, got out to find the answer!

A little forest patch flanked by agriculture. High quality nature, or a plaster on a sore wound for our ecosystems?

Obviously, more and bigger patches of nature are better, no doubt in that, and it is known that bigger forest patches support higher biodiversity. That doesn’t mean, however, that all these little forest snippets are a ‘waste of space’! Surprisingly, small forests can actually disproportionally contribute to so-called ecosystem services.

Indeed, small woodlands in agricultural landscapes, especially ancient woodlands, have a higher potential to deliver multiple ecosystem services such as carbon storage and resource availability for animals, on a per area basis.

A reassuring thought to have when wandering through Flanders, which is especially well-known for the increasingly smaller fragments of nature in a matrix of agriculture and urbanity. Of course, there are big fights to fight: the small fragments that are there, need long-term conservation, and there is an ongoing need for better connectivity between such patches. Yet that every inch of forests can have its merits for the landscape, that does make me very happy.

As always exploring Flanders nature, and enjoying every second of it

You like this idea of highly beneficial little forest patches? Check out the paper itself!
There is also much more where that came from, for example the work on the importance of hedges for biodiversity in the landscape, here!

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The rollercoaster

The rollercoaster has left for the wildest ride of 2021!

In a little bit over 2 weeks, we’ll do something crazy: we’re launching are massive citizen science project to measure heat and drought in over 5000 Flemish gardens, nature reserves and farms.

The ‘garden dagger’, the star of the show in our upcoming citizen science project! Picture credits: An Van Gijsegem

For several months, a team of close to ten people – plus a wide range of external partners – has frantically worked to make this happen. Preparing the science, communication, logistics, partners, innovation, the wonderful ‘garden dagger’ itself… Doing a citizen science project at this scale is a massive undertaking. It’s an amazing feeling to see how many different people with how many different backgrounds and skills come together to make this a reality.

Digging into the soils of our gardens and showing the world what’s under our feet, that’s one of the goals of this giant community science project. Let’s get hands dirty all across Flanders!

And so, with 2021 finally here, we all jump on the rollercoaster that is increasingly gaining speed and momentum. There is no going back anymore, and the first looping is just around the corner! So keep an eye on www.curieuzeneuzen.be, where we’ll give the official kick-off soon and start making history!

Soon, maps like this will be popping up on the website, where we’ll be able to show you how heat and drought vary at the smallest scale across Flanders

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The 3D Lab closes 2020

Our goal here in The 3D Lab is to use our skills to help fight the biodiversity crisis. Important. Urgent. Complex. Never finished.

Of course, this is a battle we won’t win overnight, nor will we manage on our own. But I hope we did add some stones to the mountain over the last months. In the last post of the year, we traditionally look back using some of our most-read stories, to evaluate what goals we achieved.

So here comes: The 3D Labs’ 2020 in our 10 best stories!

Figure 18b
Call for remote research sites
  1. We launched a call for the whole world to help out with the SoilTemp-database. Important, as we believe that biodiversity can’t be saved without good climate data, and coverage is poorest in many of the most biodiverse regions. The call has been widely successful, with sensors now measuring all across the world, from the depths of the jungle in Congo to remote Canadian islands.
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Microclimate ecology and biogeography – meeting in Sweden

2. We joined an enthusiastic panel of microclimate experts in a mansion in Sweden to discuss the most important questions to tackle while moving forward. A reflection exercise that allows us to first study what’s most important. Hopeful observation: microclimate ecology is ready to gear up for the future!

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Collaborative ecology at the Oikos-conference in Reykjavik, Iceland

3. We discussed how we as ecologists can take up our task to preserve our biodiversity in a rapidly changing world, and how we should do so before things get too far out of hand. The ecological conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, could serve as an important and hopeful example.

4. We used our expertise against the global pandemic that has been raging throughout 2020. More importantly, we argued that we as ecologists should NOT use our expertise here. A humble lesson on how science keeps learning and still has so much to learn, and how tricky that is if scientific conclusions need to guide global decision-making.

Graphical abstract
Graphic summary of our first SoilTemp paper

5. We published our first paper on the SoilTemp-database, arguably our ‘biggest gun’ in the fight against the biodiversity crisis at the moment. Very short summary: do you have microclimate measurements? Get in touch!

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Vegetation monitoring on a volcano in the Andes

6. I published a commentary piece on how I see global change ecology move forward, and which data we need to achieve what we want to. Dubbed ‘the holy trinity’, these three should remain our targets on the horizon: long-term monitoring, microclimate measurements, and experimental tests of how organisms deal with the climate.

7. We published another paper – in Science this time – in which we warn that we are far from there with the microclimatic part of the above statement: we don’t know what will happen with that microclimate towards the future, as long as our climate predictions do not take into account local interactions with land use.

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Are these landscapes nature to you, or not?

8. Next up was our #NatureOrNot survey, launched in July. What we wanted? Opinions about nature! How do you see nature, and how does that affect the way we should be conserving the valuable bits of green we have left?

9. A first sneak peek into the data from 8. shows us that Belgians see nature in their municipality deteriorating, with 75% of respondents indicating a decline over their lifetime. No surprises there, but we will be digging deeper in the next year to find out the whole story!

RangeX-research in the Swiss Alps, photo by Loïc Liberati

10. We end this overview with good news for the future: 2021 will in many aspects be a LOT bigger than 2020 was. Two of the big guns we’ll be loading? ‘We are very pleased to announce that next year, with MIREN, we will be heavily involved in two large international projects that have been recommended for funding through BiodivERsA.’

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Show us your best

The 3D Lab closed off the year with a fun meeting last Friday. All members were asked to present 1) their favourite figure they made the last year, and 2) a figure they hope to make the next year.

And, oh boy, what a rewarding experience that was! I’m not going to share the beauties we got to see, as most of them are currently unpublished surprises for you for next year, but I don’t want to keep my main conclusions from you:

  1. Figures in ecology can be so diverse! We saw maps, scatter plots, beautifully enhanced tables, interactive plots, conceptual schemes… All of them impressive in their own regard, all of them containing a wealth of information that helps move science forward. Figures truly are the flagship of science, and the new generation of scientists sure knows how to use them.
  2. The 3D Lab is growing in expertise. Every new year, each of the members adds so much new knowledge to their own baggage, and new members join that help deepen and broaden the collective knowledge of the Lab. This is a realisation that fills me with utter joy, as it means that the team is growing and better armed every day to tackle the questions we hope to answer. This also allows for better support of each individual: find the knowledge where it is located and have each expert do what he does best.
  3. The year 2021 is looking bright. The Lab has some ambitious and beautiful figures in mind to make and publish, and I’m looking forward to support all its members in achieving this. The scientific discoveries hiding in these figures are what truly makes them worth the effort. After all, there is a world we are trying to save!
  4. Finally, we agreed we were very lucky we had a Virtual Lab in place before the global pandemic hit us. We already knew how it is to support each other from a distance, and have a team in place that can help each other get through the science even when physically distant and were thus ready to face the storm when it hit us all in the face. The Lab is far from perfect – there is only so much a Virtual Lab can replace – but I feel I can say The 3D Lab has been there for its members when they needed it.

So stay tuned for what The 3D Lab will deliver in the next year, as we are all very excited for what is to come!

Walking towards the white unknown on the horizon that is 2021. There will be dark clouds on our way, as we know from the year that passed, but what I see is mostly hope. And brave little legs that can’t be stopped.
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