Towards an Indian observatory of tropical forest response to climate change

The tropics are warming and the frequency of extreme heat events, often accompanied by drought, is increasing across most of the tropical forest biome. It is currently unclear what the effects of increasing heat on tropical forests will be. This key question is the focus of the current IOF proposal, based on three integrated strands of NERC research in Amazonia, which we lead and propose to pilot in India.

The approach consists firstly of a targeted real-time observation program at a forest site at the Southern border of the Amazon humid forests, as part of the NERC BIO-RED consortium, co-led by Gloor and Phillips. Real-time observations of forest performance rely heavily on cameras overlooking the canopies, which measure canopy temperatures, measures of productivity performance and stress, and phenology.

To characterize the climate forcing, we measure continuously climate and soil humidity. In order to understand observed patterns of tree performance responses to heat extremes, we measure separately traits of the site's dominant tree species related to tree hydraulics, as well as productivity. Secondly, as part of another ongoing NERC grant (TREMOR, led by DG) we are measuring tree hydraulic properties of dominant trees at 10 sites distributed across the Amazon. Knowledge of these characteristics across wide areas permits us to generalize mechanistic results measured with the in-situ monitoring approach.

Finally, in both ongoing and past grants OP has developed a tropical forest plot-monitoring network in Amazonia, Africa, and Borneo (~1000 1-ha plots now), capable of tracking longer-term shifts in forest biomass, productivity, and composition. We propose here to work with leading Indian scientists to apply these approaches in this critical region.

In large parts of tropical India heat waves have increased considerably in recent years with peak temperatures reaching up to 50C. Model projections suggest that up to 45% of Indian forests may be at risk of shifting to non-forest vegetation states, yet there are only very limited data to evaluate these projections.

India lacks both a comprehensive observational system as at our Amazon site, and has relatively few permanent plots, and those that do exist are mostly not integrated into international forest monitoring networks. To address these challenges we have formed new connections with key experts in India covering the areas of forest ecology, eco-physiology, and climatology. Between them our new Indian collaborators are strongly linked to national and international forest conservation efforts, and lead most available forest plots.

The scientific focus of this proposal, the extensive, biodiverse and potentially climate-sensitive evergreen forests in Western Ghats, is where the team's interests coincide geographically. We propose to jointly install a canopy-overlooking continuous forest heat and drought-response monitoring site, as in S Amazonia, close to existing plots in the Western Ghats. Together we plan a site-level traits campaign of dominant species and local integration of plot- and canopy-observation monitoring.

We further propose to harmonize protocols of plot censuses and to include Indian plot data in the pan-tropical forest census database to support larger scale geographical analyses and syntheses. I-FOR will also aim to support mutual exchange of skills, focused in three steps. The first, in the Western Ghats, is a workshop dedicated to student and young scientist education in field skills and protocols. Secondly, we plan several visits of Indian colleagues to Leeds to support joint analyses and post-project planning. The final workshop, to be hold at one of the Indian scientist's home institution, will include wider participation to discuss implications of the results and to take practical steps toward ensuring these activities become long-term efforts.