By: Colin Averill, Postdoc and Ambizione Research Fellow at Crowther Lab
We are witnessing a global movement to protect what is left of nature, as well as restore as much as we can. When we work to restore natural ecosystems, we generally start with the plants. In tropical forest ecosystems, we are often logistically constrained to planting just a subset of the original tree species that were once present. The idea is that this initial planting will “jump-start” the natural process of forest succession, leading to the recruitment of even greater biodiversity than we put in at planting, and eventually develop into a thriving forest ecosystem. Yet, so many restoration efforts fail. The trees we plant often die in places they once thrived, outcompeted by new species that have invaded the site. However, perhaps only considering the vegetation is too limited a view of what an ecosystem is, and which parts of the ecosystem are missing.
When we think of forests, we generally focus on what we can see – the plants and animals inhabiting the aboveground. However, just below the earth live incredibly diverse and complex communities of bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms are essential to how plants interact with the soil environment, and are necessary to access critically limiting soil resources. Many soil fungi form belowground networks among trees, allowing trees to share resources and buffer one another in stressful environments. These microorganisms are the forest microbiome. Yet, many key forest microbial species are missing in the post-agricultural landscapes where most forest restoration happens. It begs the question, what would happen if while planting trees we also “planted” the forest microbiome, jumpstarting not just the plants, but also their associated bacteria and fungi?
This is what our Ph.D. student, Felix Finkbeiner (also founder of Plant-for-the-Planet), is investigating with our team within the tropical dry forests of the Yucatán Peninsula of México. We’ve collected soil from intact forest remnants in the surrounding landscape, and use this soil as microbial inocula for soil microbiome restoration. The experimental setup is analogous to a randomized controlled drug trial. We’ve established 144 “blocks” of 100 trees across the landscape (14,400 trees!), and then randomly assigned the blocks to one of two treatment conditions. Half of the trees get a small scoop of forest inocula at the time of planting, while the other half gets a “placebo” dose of soil from the post-agricultural site we’re working to restore. Over the next several years we will be monitoring these trees to ask questions like:
Does soil microbiome inoculation increase the recovery of native forest microbial biodiversity?
Can microbiome inoculation increase tree growth, survival and carbon capture rates?
Will microbiome introduction increase the recruitment of other tree species into the plots, above and beyond what we planted?
We are excited to discover what happens. But, success or failure, we will learn more about how forest ecosystems assemble and gain a deeper knowledge of when restoration succeeds and fails. Beyond questions of the forest microbiome, this project is an example of how restoration and science can happen at the same time. By nesting experiments within larger restoration projects, we can learn more about how forests work on a fundamental level, while simultaneously learning how to do restoration better.
We’ve established a similar trial in Wales, UK in collaboration with The Carbon Community, a UK charity. We’re excited to replicate and expand this work across more restoration sites in diverse parts of the world. By doing so, we can generate truly general knowledge about how the global forest system works, and how best to restore and protect it.
Learn more about our soil microbiome research project in Yucatán, Mexico:
The considerable contribution of ecosystem restoration and conservation to solve these challenges has been widely recognized. But recognizing the potential is not enough. Until now, progress and action on the global scale has been far from reaching its full potential. But times are changing and we have reasons to believe that we can restore earth’s ecosystems in the limited amount of time we have at our hands. Here are some of them.
Uniting for urgency
The world is looking into the eyes of the catastrophe and there is an unprecedented urgency to act. But a renewed and widespread global awareness of the potential of ecosystem restoration is uniting society: politicians, corporates, the public and not least the thousands of restoration practitioners on the ground. Science shows that the global restoration of forests can potentially capture up to 30% of the excess carbon accumulating in our atmosphere as a result of human activity.
With a strategy for the way forward that has been developed by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration we’re seeing a truly global movement with actionable commitments, and when the billions of dollars pledged for restoration will be released, we will get far!
We now have better tools than ever to implement and scale restoration. Why not leverage Industry 4.0 technologies for the restoration of peatlands, grasslands, coral reefs and forests? The process of restoration is so much more than getting your hands dirty on the ground (though that is a key part of it).
Disruptive technologies can enable and accelerate the ground work as well as the planning, managing and reporting of restoration: drones, satellites, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the blockchain technology are rushing to nature’s aid. These tools also help us document restoration efforts, which is crucial for learning what works and what doesn’t. That’s why at the Crowther Lab we’re focused on connecting the dots between data science and ecology.
Restoration action: building a new ecosystem
Organizations, volunteers, indigenous groups – people around the world have been restoring local ecosystems for decades. This persistent work has built the basis for an increased global awareness and the current momentum. But there’s still room to grow: we can get more people involved and restore more land. And this is changing: a wave of new initiatives and start-ups are energizing the restoration world.
There are new promising business models along the whole restoration supply chain, which ensure that restoration is not just a “hype” but rather based on a sustainable strategy. Ambitious corporate commitments to go carbon neutral include the insetting of carbon in supply chains. An example is the inclusion of trees on farms in agroforestry systems, which is increasingly seen as a profitable business opportunity. Companies like Zurich Insurance are investing in reforestation projects, Patagoniamakes climate action a corporate initiative and Microsoftis supporting projects like conserving old growth forests in the USA. This is the kind of collective action we need; we need more well-intentioned projects to reach scale, and it’s crucial that they are grounded in science.
Supporting the movement with science
Successful ecosystem restoration needs to be based on scientific knowledge. Nowadays, there are new opportunities to ensure a universal access to that science, to accelerate learning and democratize restoration know-how: big data, for one, can help to advance our understanding of ecosystems and restoration practices. We now have a range of tools readily available to collect high quality data cheaply, and a sensitized community of global restoration practitioners who want to advance science with their experience and data. Decades of research in restoration ecology and careers dedicated to the movement have provided the foundation that this action needs.
We now learn from one project in one place, and transfer this knowledge to other areas with similar characteristics. My team at Crowther Lab is committed to making restoration know-how available as widely as possible: and that is why we built Restor. With Restor, a new open data platform, we want to connect initiatives on the ground in an active and engaged network and support them with science – all clearly interpreted and understandable. As of today, data from over 15,000 locations around the world have been submitted to Restor for restoration knowledge sharing.
The foundations for scaling local restoration have been laid by global commitments. The tools to get there are being developed and rolled out. Restor is our contribution to reaching global climate and restoration goals, and it is one of many parts of the solution. But its success also depends on the engagement of the people. It is a mammoth task (or rather, a human task – let’s not rely on the mammoths for now) to restore the millions of hectares and to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.