Forests of the future

31 Mar 2015

Author: Victoria Tait

Photography: Provided by University of Western Sydney


Take one plant physiologist and a team of 90 international scientists. Add Australian Government funding and a world-class environmental studies facility set near native woodland. The result is EucFACE, an experiment that measures the impact of future climates on mature forests and sets a global benchmark for environmental scientific innovation.
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Imagine a world in which every medical doctor has specialised in nothing but paediatrics. Physical changes, challenges and conditions common to anyone past their toddler years would go unaddressed, adult patients would suffer, and the field of medicine would have a serious knowledge gap. Apply that analogy to the impact of rising carbon levels on mature bushland and forest systems, and you’ve got yourself an experiment, according to Professor David Ellsworth, at the University of Western Sydney’s (UWS) Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment.

Eucalyptus Free Air CO2 Enrichment (EucFACE) measures the impact of rising carbon levels on Australia’s native woodlands and is the world’s only free air carbon dioxide (CO2) experiment in native forest. Previous experiments focused on ecosystems two years old or less, which Ellsworth says is akin to applying paediatrics to the elderly.

“If we’re basing all of what we know and do on the babies rather than the old folks, so to speak, that’s a serious gap in knowledge,” he says.  “The purpose of EucFACE is to address that gap. Currently, it’s the only experiment worldwide that does.”

EucFACE is a highly collaborative effort based at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, located in the western Sydney suburb of Richmond, near a broad swathe of Australia’s one million square kilometres of native, eucalypt woodland or forest that is not cultivated. Building EucFACE into native bushland began in 2010 with a brief to construct six carbon  fibre rings 25 metres in diameter. The ring structures were built off the ground, allowing animals to move freely around their native habitat.

“Not one woody stem or branch was cut in the construction of this project. We really impressed on the tradesmen that the whole reason we’re building this is to study the native bush so we can’t trash it,” Ellsworth says. 

Of the six EucFACE rings, three release elevated levels of CO2; three do not, acting as controls for the experiment and allowing Ellsworth and his team to study the impact on the trees and bushland over 10 years. The team is made up of 90 scientists: six Australian universities and the Australian Government research agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) alongside scientists from seven countries overseas: Canada, Estonia, Germany, New Zealand, The Netherlands, the UK and the United States.  Scientists from France and Brazil have also expressed interest. 

Representing a wide range of disciplines, the team uses EucFACE to study a wide range of responses, from cellular to ecosystem-level, from soil fungi through to plants (Ellsworth’s area of expertise),birds and insects. Most of the project’s lead researchers are Australian, with project leads from the UK, US and Germany in the areas of insect ecology, molecular biology, plant physiology, mycology, soil science and biogeochemistry. Meteorologists, remote-sensing specialists and molecular scientists are also involved.

An impressive list of overseas universities includes the UK’s Imperial College London and The Open University, Germany’s Justus-von-Liebig University, the Centre of Excellence at the Estonian University of Life Sciences-Estonia and, in the US, George Washington University and the University of Minnesota. Landcare New Zealand is also represented.

“We all use bits of each other’s data to support what we’re finding,” Ellsworth says.  “Australia is a great place for collaboration because people really want to work together. That’s a really positive thing,” he says. 

He notes some scientists from countries outside Australia come from a culture in which one or two lead professors make a proposal and everyone follows it. Not at EucFACE.

“Some people who have come to EucFACE have said something like, ‘Well we just had this idea and there’s nowhere else we can test it.’ So they proposed the work and we think, ‘Yep, that’s great. Join in.’”

Ellsworth says Australia’s variable climate is difficult to copy, so scientists would find it very difficult to attempt to replicate this experiment in a lab.

“The wet, the dry, the hot, the cold, the storms, the anomalous heat – to really know how our systems behave in a future with higher CO2 requires seeing through all of those.” 

Ellsworth’s specialty is plant photosynthesis, the process by which plants soak up CO2 from the atmosphere. This process is at the centre of why EucFACE is being conducted and why it is so massive in scale. 

“The reason we would need it in our native bush is because CO2   globally has increased 40 per cent since the 1880s. That’s about 2.5 per cent a year right now. But just 20 years ago, it was going up one per cent a year,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘If that were my bank account, that would be great! But if it’s something we think could be a problem, we really should be looking into it’.”

Ellsworth first came to Australia in 2001 as a short-term scientific visitor to work with colleagues at Macquarie University, then returned to the US. He returned to Australia to take up the position at UWS in 2007. 

“When I was sitting in America thinking, should I take a position in Australia or not, I thought, ‘It’s a long way away so that means I won’t get home very often’. In life, that’s maybe not ideal, but, biologically, this is such a rich and diverse country, it’s so interesting that I feel like I could fill 20 careers looking at the amazing biology of this place. That’s really what drives me scientifically and why I do really love living here. I’m probably never leaving.” 

Over coming years, the vast quantity of data generated by experiments inside EucFACE will inform science and policy in Australia and internationally as the world moves to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

“When international agreements are drawn up on these things, we should really understand how the system works in the wet, the dry, in the soil we have in Australia, even on the bearded dragon I almost stepped on,” he says.

Check out this video by University of Western Sydney and hear Professor David Ellsworth explains exactly what EucFACE is, and what research is currently being conducted.