Emma Docherty

Emma Docherty


I come from a background in tropical forest conservation, having spent several years working as a biologist and expedition co-ordinator in the Peruvian Amazon, investigating the effects of climate intensifications on local wildlife and people. This led me to study for a MSc in Environmental Change, Impacts and Adaptation, where I became fascinated by tropical ecosystem functioning more broadly, investigating the effect of intensifications in seasonal flood patterns on soil CO2 efflux and decomposition rates in the várzea forests of Peru.

My PhD research focuses on improving our understanding of the sensitivity of tropical forests to rising temperatures. Tropical forests play a significant role in the Earth system, regulating climate and housing the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. Temperatures of tropical regions have been steadily increasing causing concerns that future elevated temperatures may greatly impair forest functioning and potentially result in considerable forest dieback under extremely warm scenarios. It is widely recognised that temperature impacts plant performance, and although plant temperatureā€response parameters are reasonably well understood conceptually, they are not sufficiently quantified for tropical forest species, limiting considerably our ability to simulate climate change impacts on tropical forest biogeochemistry and land surface-climate feedbacks.

My PhD project will target empirical data collection of key leaf thermal traits for tropical species that provide fundamental information about the sensitivity of gas exchange processes and/or the integrity of photosynthetic machinery under moderate to extreme heat. Data will be collected across eight RAINFOR (Amazon Forest Inventory Network) sites, spanning a broad geographical coverage in Amazonia, and positioned along representative environmental gradients of temperature, precipitation and dry-season length. The suite of thermal traits will incorporate the temperature response of important photosynthetic and respiratory parameters that govern plant performance, including net carbon assimilation; stomatal conductance; electron transport rate; maximum quantum efficiency of photosystem II; and respiration in the dark. This will be achieved through the use of sophisticated portable infrared greenhouse gas analysers (LICOR) and PAM fluorescence devices (Fluropen FP100) on excised tree branches in the field.

The results of this study will have substantial implications. The novel empirical dataset of thermal sensitivity traits for Amazonian forests will allow us for the first time to evaluate: 1) which Amazonian forests are most sensitive to heat stress, and 2) the extent to which thermal sensitivity is phylogenetically controlled. The data will also be combined with recently measured plant hydraulic traits which provide a measure of forest sensitivity to drought (TREMOR project) to test: 3) the extent to which thermal sensitivity and drought sensitivity are co-ordinated. The data generated will be extremely valuable for predicting climate change impacts on tropical forests. For example, the new data collected can be directly used to parameterise temperature response curves in land surface models. Accordingly, these data will be highly relevant for vegetation modelling efforts, facilitating more refined projections of climate change impacts on Amazonian forests, and global climate.


Research interests

My broad research interests include:

  • Tropical ecology
  • Ecosystem stability, resistance, and resilience
  • Environmental change
  • Indigenous cultures
  • Conservation


  • MSc Environmental Change, Impacts and Adaptation, Aberystwyth University
  • BSc (Hons) Zoo Biology, Nottingham Trent University

Research groups and institutes

  • Ecology and Global Change