Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL
Recent publications
Investigation into the nexus of human-environmental behavior has seen increasing collaboration of archaeologists, historians, and paleo-scientists. However, many studies still lack interdisciplinarity and overlook incompatibilities in spatiotemporal scaling of environmental and societal data and their uncertainties. Here, we argue for a strengthened commitment to collaborative work and introduce the “dahliagram” as a tool to analyze and visualize quantitative and qualitative knowledge from diverse disciplinary sources and epistemological backgrounds. On the basis of regional cases of past human mobility in eastern Africa, Inner Eurasia, and the North Atlantic, we develop three dahliagrams that illustrate pull and push factors underlying key phases of population movement across different geographical scales and over contrasting periods of time since the end of the last Ice Age. Agnostic to analytical units, dahliagrams offer an effective tool for interdisciplinary investigation, visualization, and communication of complex human-environmental interactions at a diversity of spatiotemporal scales.
In river systems worldwide, land cover changes have been identified as major drivers of biodiversity change. Quantifying how terrestrial land cover impacts riverine diversity requires local biodiversity assessments. In this study, we investigated the association of terrestrial land cover and the corresponding riverine fish species communities using eDNA‐metabarcoding in the Chinese Shaying River basin. This basin is home to about 37 million people and is largely dominated by a mix of intense agriculture and urban areas, creating a relatively homogeneous, intensely used landscape. We investigated whether the homogeneous landscape is mirrored in the composition and structure of fish communities in the river network. We sampled eDNA in spring and fall of 2018, amplified it with a primer designed for local fish species and used operational taxonomic units (OTU) assigned to fish as proxy for diversity. Furthermore, we used redundancy analysis, general linear models, and distance decay curves to assess the effects of land cover on fish communities. We found that the Shaying River showed relatively high basin‐wide richness (63 OTU) and seasonal differences in local richness, but limited community differentiation. Variations in alpha‐ and beta‐diversity, measured as local OTU richness and pairwise distance‐decay across the basin were low. Redundancy analysis showed only a weak association between observed aquatic communities and their terrestrial surroundings in a 10 km buffer upstream. The lack of community differentiation assessed by eDNA metabarcoding reflects the homogeneous and intense land‐use in this basin.
Aim The microclimate and light conditions on the forest floor are strongly modified by tree canopies. Therefore, we need to better consider the micro‐environment when quantifying trait–environment relationships for forest understorey plants. Here, we quantify relationships between micro‐environmental conditions and plant functional traits at the community level, including intraspecific trait variation, and their relationship with microclimate air temperature, light and soil properties. Location Deciduous temperate forests across Europe. Time period 2018. Major taxa studied Herbaceous vegetation. Methods We sampled 225 plots across 15 regions along four complementary gradients capturing both macro‐ and microclimatic conditions including latitude, elevation, forest management and distance to forest edges. We related the community‐weighted mean of five plant functional traits (plant height, specific leaf area [SLA], plant carbon [C], plant nitrogen [N] and plant C:N ratio) across 150 vascular plant species to variation in local microclimate air temperature, light and soil properties. We tested the effect of accounting for intraspecific variation in trait–environment relationships and performed variation partitioning to identify major drivers of trait variation. Results Microclimate temperature, light availability and soil properties were all important predictors of community‐weighted mean functional traits. When light availability and variation in temperature were higher, the herb community often consisted of taller plants with a higher C:N ratio. In more productive environments (e.g. with high soil nitrogen availability), the community was dominated by individuals with resource‐acquisitive traits: high SLA and N but low C:N. Including intraspecific trait variation increased the strength of the trait–micro‐environment relationship, and increased the importance of light availability. Main conclusions The trait–environment relationships were much stronger when the micro‐environment and intraspecific trait variation were considered. By locally steering light availability and temperature, forest managers can potentially impact the functional signature of the forest herb‐layer community.
Aim Reconstructing megafauna diversity in the past before anthropogenic impacts is crucial for developing targeted restoration strategies. We estimated the diversity and functional decline of European megafauna in the present compared with the nearest in‐time climate period analogue to the present but prior to the worldwide diffusion of Homo sapiens. Location Europe. Time Period Last Interglacial (LIG; ca. 127,000 years ago) to present. Major Taxa Studied Wild, large (≥10 kg) terrestrial mammals. Methods We assessed the distribution of 48 European megafauna species during the LIG using hindcasting modelling and fossil records. Then, we estimated the decline in megafauna community diversity and potential trait‐based functional effects from the LIG to the present, accounting for climate differences between the two periods. Results Species richness and community biomass dropped by 70.8% (±11.7%) and by 94.5% (±9.9%). Functional diversity dropped by 80.3% (±15.3%) for herbivores and by 64.9% (±29.1%) for carnivores, while trait‐informed potential vegetation and meat consumptions dropped by 82.3% (±13.4%) and 60.5% (±26.0%). The loss in megafauna diversity and associated ecological processes were high everywhere, but particularly in western Europe for carnivores and in the East European Plain for herbivores. Potential megafauna richness in the two periods was similar if only climate‐driven differences were considered. Main Conclusions Severe, size‐biased defaunation has degraded megafauna assemblages and megafauna‐mediated ecological processes across Europe from the LIG to the present. These patterns cannot be explained by climate differences between the two periods, thus were likely driven by prehistoric Homo sapiens. The results suggest that the structure of wild ecosystems of the present strongly deviates from the evolutionary norm, with decreased functional heterogeneity and decreased fluxes of biogeochemical compounds across the trophic networks, highlighting the importance of ambitious policies of megafauna community restoration to support ecosystem functioning.
Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) initiate with the rapid outburst of a glacier lake, endangering downstream populations, land, and infrastructure. The flow initiates as a mud flow; however, with the entrainment of additional solid material, the flood will often transform into a debris flow. As the run-out slope flattens, the coarse solid material deposits and the flow de-waters. The flow transforms back into a muddy, hyperconcentrated flow of fine sediments in suspension. These flow transitions change the flow composition dramatically and influence both the overall mass balance and flow rheology of the event. In this paper, we apply a two-phase/layer model to simulate flow transitions, solid–fluid phase separations, entrainment, and run-out distances of glacier lake outburst floods. A key feature of the model is the calculation of dilatant actions in the solid–fluid mixture which control flow transitions and phase separations. Given their high initial amount of fluid within the flow, GLOFs are sensitive to slope changes inducing flow transitions, which also implies changes in the flow rheology. The changes in the rheology are computed as a function of the flow composition and do not need any adaptation by ad-hoc selection of friction coefficients. This procedure allows the application of constant rheological input parameters from initiation to run-out. Our goal is to increase the prediction reliability of debris flow modeling. We highlight the problems associated with initial and boundary (entrainment) conditions. We test the new model against the well-known Lake 513 (Peru, 2010), Lake Palcacocha (Peru, 1941), and Lake Uchitel in the Aksay Valley (Kyrgyzstan) GLOF events. We show that flow transition modeling is essential when studying areas that have significant variations in slope.
Question: Legumes are a key component of rangelands because they play an important role in animal nutrition and the entrance of nitrogen (N) into ecosystems through symbiotic fixation. Legume abundance is commonly low in N-enriched environments because of competition with grasses and non-legume forbs. Both haying and livestock grazing remove plant biomass and reduce light limitation to plant growth, with the difference that livestock may selectively consume legumes. This study examines how legumes respond to grazing, haying and fertilization, and what mechanisms explain legume abundance in rangelands. Location: Flooding Pampa, Argentina. Methods: We performed two manipulation field experiments over 3 years. First, a factorial of rangeland management (intact, haying, or grazing) under two nutrient levels (ambient and increased N, phosphorus [P] and potassium [K]); and second, a factorial of rangeland management (intact or haying) and N × P addition. We evaluated legume, grass and non-legume forb abundance and ground-level light in three to five replicates of our experiments over 3 years. Results: NPK fertilization increased legume abundance consistently under grazing, and temporarily under haying, but had no effect in the intact grassland. Also, P addition increased legume abundance only under haying when N was not added. Temporal changes in legume abundance were positively associated with changes in groundlevel light, which increased with haying and grazing, but decreased with fertilization in the intact grassland, and negatively with grass abundance. Conclusions: The negative effects of nutrients on legume abundance were offset by the positive effects of livestock. The reduction in grass competition and increase in ground-level light due to grazing and haying explained the positive responses of legume abundance to nutrients in this temperate grassland. Our results highlight the importance of considering the interactive response of legume abundance to grazing and fertilization, which are becoming common practices in rangelands.
As the climate has warmed, many birds have advanced their breeding timing. However, as climate change also changes temperature distributions, breeding earlier might increase nestling exposure to either extreme heat or cold. Here, we combine >300,000 breeding records from 24 North American birds with historical temperature data to understand how exposure to extreme temperatures has changed. Average spring temperature increased since 1950 but change in timing of extremes was inconsistent in direction and magnitude; thus, populations could not track both average and extreme temperatures. Relative fitness was reduced following heatwaves and cold snaps in 11 and 16 of 24 species, respectively. Latitudinal variation in sensitivity in three widespread species suggests that vulnerability to extremes at range limits may contribute to range shifts. Our results add to evidence demonstrating that understanding individual sensitivity and its links to population level processes is critical for predicting vulnerability to changing climates.
Safe and just Earth system boundaries (ESBs) for surface water and groundwater (blue water) have been defined for sustainable water management in the Anthropocene. Here we assessed whether minimum human needs could be met with surface water from within individual river basins alone and, where this is not possible, quantified how much groundwater would be required. Approximately 2.6 billion people live in river basins where groundwater is needed because they are already outside the surface water ESB or have insufficient surface water to meet human needs and the ESB. Approximately 1.4 billion people live in river basins where demand-side transformations would be required as they either exceed the surface water ESB or face a decline in groundwater recharge and cannot meet minimum needs within the ESB. A further 1.5 billion people live in river basins outside the ESB, with insufficient surface water to meet minimum needs, requiring both supply- and demand-side transformations. These results highlight the challenges and opportunities of meeting even basic human access needs to water and protecting aquatic ecosystems.
The vast microbial biodiversity of soils is beginning to be observed and understood by applying modern DNA sequencing techniques. However, ensuring this potentially valuable information is used in a fair and equitable way remains a challenge. Here, we present a public engagement project that explores this topic through collaborative research of soil microbiomes at six urban locations using nanopore-based DNA sequencing. The project brought together researchers from the disciplines of synthetic biology, environmental humanities and microbial ecology, as well as school students aged 14–16 years old, to gain a broader understanding of views on the use of data from the environment. Discussions led to the transformation of ‘bioprospecting’, a metaphor with extractive connotations which is often used to frame environmental DNA sequencing studies, towards a more collaborative approach—‘biorespecting’. This shift in terminology acknowledges that genetic information contained in soil arises as a result of entire ecosystems, including the people involved in its creation. Therefore, any use of sequence information should be accountable to the ecosystems from which it arose. As knowledge can arise from ecosystems and communities, science and technology should acknowledge this link and reciprocate with care and benefit-sharing to help improve the wellbeing of future generations.
Despite the rise in cultural ecosystem services (CESs) research in urban or peri-urban settings and related participatory approaches, studies on the social values of CESs benefits, in the largely natural and rural border landscapes to locals' well-being are still few. This study uses the Bendimahi River Basin (Van), one of Türkiye's least developed areas along the Iranian border, as an empirical case to explore the links between the locals' social values for ecosystem benefits, landscape characteristics, and human well-being dimensions such as personal and social fulfilment and enjoyment. A questionnaire survey combined with PPGIS landscape value mapping with 348 people was employed to gather data for 15 ecosystem services with an emphasis on CES. The findings of the statistical and spatial analyses revealed that while enjoyment benefits are lowest in the landscape due to the low development, respondents have the highest well-being benefits in social fulfilment through intrinsic, future, continuity, and sense of place values. The male respondents found as experiencing both of these well-being benefits more than women in the Basin. Physical features such as accessibility, water bodies/wetlands, settlements, dynamic topography, and naturalness displayed positive influence on the locals' CES experiences. Due to their facilitation on CESs experiences, improvements in rural tourism and environmental protection are proposed as two paths for the Basin’s development and for enhancing the well-being of its inhabitants. A discussion is provided on how and when to incorporate the social values of CES into landscape planning to improve participatory decision making in rural landscapes.
Wood is a sustainable natural resource and an important global commodity. According to the ‘moon wood theory’, the properties of wood, including its growth and water content, are believed to oscillate with the lunar cycle. Despite contradicting our current understanding of plant functioning, this theory is commonly exploited for marketing wooden products. To examine the moon wood theory, we applied a wavelet power transformation to series of 2,000,000 hourly stem radius records from dendrometers. We separated the influence of 74 consecutive lunar cycles and meteorological conditions on the stem variation of 62 trees and six species. We show that the dynamics of stem radius consist of overlapping oscillations with periods of 1 day, 6 months, and 1 year. These oscillations in stem dimensions were tightly coupled to oscillations in the series of air temperature and vapour pressure deficit. By contrast, we revealed no imprint of the lunar cycle on the stem radius variation of any species. We call for scepticism towards the moon wood theory, at least as far as the stem water content and radial growth are concerned. We foresee that similar studies employing robust scientific approaches will be increasingly needed in the future to cope with misleading concepts.
The great river systems originating from the Tibetan Plateau are pivotal for the wellbeing of more than half the global population. Our understanding of historical ranges and future changes in water availability for much of Southeast Asia is, however, limited by short observational records and complex environmental factors. Here we present annually resolved and absolutely dated tree ring-based streamflow reconstructions for the Mekong, Salween and Yarlung Tsangpo rivers since 1000 ce, which are supplemented by corresponding model projections until 2100 ce. We show a significant positive correlation between streamflow and dry season vegetation indices over the Indochinese Peninsula, revealing the importance of the Tibetan Water Tower for the functioning and productivity of ecological and societal systems in Southeast Asia. The streamflow variability is associated with low-frequency sea-surface temperature variability in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. We find that streamflow extremes coincide with distinct shifts in local populations that occurred during medieval times, including the occupation and subsequent collapse of Angkor Wat from the eleventh to the sixteenth century. Finally, our projections suggest that future streamflow changes will reach, or even exceed, historical ranges by the end of this century, posing unprecedented risks for Southeast Asia.
Forests are a substantial terrestrial carbon sink, but anthropogenic changes in land use and climate have considerably reduced the scale of this system¹. Remote-sensing estimates to quantify carbon losses from global forests2–5 are characterized by considerable uncertainty and we lack a comprehensive ground-sourced evaluation to benchmark these estimates. Here we combine several ground-sourced⁶ and satellite-derived approaches2,7,8 to evaluate the scale of the global forest carbon potential outside agricultural and urban lands. Despite regional variation, the predictions demonstrated remarkable consistency at a global scale, with only a 12% difference between the ground-sourced and satellite-derived estimates. At present, global forest carbon storage is markedly under the natural potential, with a total deficit of 226 Gt (model range = 151–363 Gt) in areas with low human footprint. Most (61%, 139 Gt C) of this potential is in areas with existing forests, in which ecosystem protection can allow forests to recover to maturity. The remaining 39% (87 Gt C) of potential lies in regions in which forests have been removed or fragmented. Although forests cannot be a substitute for emissions reductions, our results support the idea2,3,9 that the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of diverse forests offer valuable contributions to meeting global climate and biodiversity targets.
Farming in Europe has been the scene of several important socio-economic and environmental developments and crises throughout the last century. Therefore, an understanding of the historical driving forces of farm change helps identifying potentials for navigating future pathways of agricultural development. However, long-term driving forces have so far been studied, e.g. in anecdotal local case studies or in systematic literature reviews, which often lack context dependency. In this study, we bridged local and continental scales by conducting 123 oral history interviews (OHIs) with elderly farmers across 13 study sites in 10 European countries. We applied a driving forces framework to systematically analyse the OHIs. We find that the most prevalent driving forces were the introduction of new technologies, developments in agricultural markets that pushed farmers for farm size enlargement and technological optimisation, agricultural policies, but also cultural aspects such as cooperation and intergenerational arrangements. However, we find considerable heterogeneity in the specific influence of individual driving forces across the study sites, implying that generic assumptions about the dynamics and impacts of European agricultural change drivers hold limited explanatory power on the local scale. Our results suggest that site-specific factors and their historical development will need to be considered when addressing the future of agriculture in Europe in a scientific or policy context. Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s10113-023-02150-y.
Pore fluid plays a crucial role in many granular flows, especially those in geophysical settings. However, the transition in behaviour between dry flows and fully saturated flows and the underlying physics that relate to this are poorly understood. In this paper, we report the results of small-scale flume experiments using monodisperse granular particles with varying water content and volume in which the basal pore pressure, total pressure, flow height and velocity profile were measured at a section. We compare the results with theoretical profiles for granular flow and with flow regimes based on dimensional analysis. The runout and the centre of mass were also calculated from the deposit surface profiles. As the initial water content by mass was increased from zero to around 10%, we first observed a drop in mobility by approximately 50%, as surface tension caused cohesive behaviour due to matric suction. As the water content was further increased up to 45%, the mobility also increased dramatically, with increased flow velocity up to 50%, increased runout distance up to 240% and reduced travel angle by up to 10° compared to the dry case. These effects can be directly related to the basal pore pressure, with both negative pressures and positive pore pressures being measured relative to atmospheric during the unsteady flow. We find that the initial flow volume plays a role in the development of relative pore pressure, such that, at a fixed relative water content, larger flows exhibit greater positive pore pressures, greater velocities and greater relative runout distances. This aligns with many other granular experiments and field observations. Our findings suggest that the fundamental role of the pore fluid is to reduce frictional contact forces between grains thus increasing flow velocity and bulk mobility. While this can occur by the development of excess pore pressure, it can also occur where the positive pore pressure is not in excess of hydrostatic, as shown here, since buoyancy and lubrication alone will reduce frictional forces. Graphical abstract
Climate warming and summer droughts alter soil microbial activity, affecting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in arctic and alpine regions. However, the long-term effects of warming, and implications for future microbial resilience, are poorly understood. Using one alpine and three arctic soils subjected to in situ long-term experimental warming, we simulated drought in laboratory incubations to test how microbial functional-gene abundance affects fluxes in three GHGs: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. We found that responses of functional gene abundances to drought and warming are strongly associated with vegetation type and soil carbon. Our sites ranged from a wet, forb dominated, soil carbon-rich systems to a drier, soil carbon-poor alpine site. Resilience of functional gene abundances, and in turn methane and carbon dioxide fluxes, was lower in the wetter, carbon-rich systems. However, we did not detect an effect of drought or warming on nitrous oxide fluxes. All gene-GHG relationships were modified by vegetation type, with stronger effects being observed in wetter, forb-rich soils. These results suggest that impacts of warming and drought on GHG emissions are linked to a complex set of microbial gene abundances and may be habitat-specific.
Interactions between plants and herbivores are central in most ecosystems, but their strength is highly variable. The amount of variability within a system is thought to influence most aspects of plant-herbivore biology, from ecological stability to plant defense evolution. Our understanding of what influences variability, however, is limited by sparse data. We collected standardized surveys of herbivory for 503 plant species at 790 sites across 116° of latitude. With these data, we show that within-population variability in herbivory increases with latitude, decreases with plant size, and is phylogenetically structured. Differences in the magnitude of variability are thus central to how plant-herbivore biology varies across macroscale gradients. We argue that increased focus on interaction variability will advance understanding of patterns of life on Earth.
Predicting the presence or absence (occurrence-state) of species in a certain area is highly important for conservation. Occurrence-state can be assessed by network models that take suitable habitat patches as nodes, connected by potential dispersal of species. To determine connections, a connectivity threshold is set at the species’ maximum dispersal distance. However, this requires field observations prone to underestimation, so for most animal species there are no trustable maximum dispersal distance estimations. This limits the development of accurate network models to predict species occurrence-state. In this study, we performed a sensitivity analysis of the performance of network models to different settings of maximum dispersal distance. Our approach, applied on six amphibian species in Switzerland, used habitat suitability modelling to define habitat patches, which were linked within a dispersal distance threshold to form habitat networks. We used network topological measures, patch suitability, and patch size to explain species occurrence-state in habitat patches through boosted regression trees. These modelling steps were repeated on each species for different maximum dispersal distances, including a species-specific value from literature. We evaluated mainly the predictive performance and predictor importance among the network models. We found that predictive performance had a positive relation with the distance threshold, and that almost none of the species-specific values from literature yielded the best performance across tested thresholds. With increasing dispersal distance, the importance of the habitat-quality-related variable decreased, whereas that of the topology-related predictors increased. We conclude that the sensitivity of these models to the dispersal distance parameter stems from the very different topologies formed with different movement assumptions. Most reported maximum dispersal distances are underestimated, presumably due to leptokurtic dispersal distribution. Our results imply that caution should be taken when selecting a dispersal distance threshold, considering higher values than those derived from field reports, to account for long-distance dispersers.
A fundamental challenge is to understand and navigate trade-offs between ecosystem services (ES) in dynamic landscapes and to account for interactions between local people and broad-scale drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Many analyses of ES trade-offs rely on static mapping and biophysical indicators while disregarding the multiple uses, values, and desires for ES (UVD-ES) that local people associate with their changing landscapes. Here, a participatory UVD-ES framework was applied to assess differences in the use, values, and desire of ES between three zones with different land-use intensities (with pre-frontier, frontier, and post-frontier landscapes) in West Kalimantan (Indonesia). The analysis revealed that (1) almost the full suite of ES uses has become destabilized as a result of agricultural intensification; (2) ES more closely associated with agricultural intensification were largely desired by local people yet they still valued a diversity of traditional ES, such as those derived from the provision of non-timber forest products, fish, and other ES associated with non-material aspects including those tied to traditional culture; (3) the mismatch in used ES versus valued ES increased with agricultural intensification due to a decrease in the flow of non-timber forest products, aquatic, regulating, and non-material (cultural) ES. Together, exploring UVD-ES patterns in a participatory way helped to reveal locally relevant social-ecological drivers of ES and a multidimensional perspective of ES trade-offs. Our UVD-ES framework offers an opportunity to foster participation as a way to reconnect global environmental research agendas with local and regional landscape contexts.
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390 members
Arthur Gessler
  • Forest Dynamics Research Unit
Olga Nadyeina
  • Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Research Unit
Matthias Haeni
  • Forest Dynamics Research Unit
Arun Bose
  • Forest Dynamics Research Unit
Melissa A. Dawes
  • Forest Soils and Biogeochemistry Research Unit
Birmensdorf, Switzerland