Finding the lost forests of the drylands

A new global analysis of the distribution of forests and woodlands across dryland ecosystems using TERN data has increased current estimates of global forest cover by nearly 10%. The work, just published in Science, is a direct result of TERN’s on-going collaborations with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization through their Global Forest Survey, which uses TERN data for crucial on-ground verification of satellite-based analyses.

Finding these lost dryland forests increases current estimates of global forest cover by almost 10%, and by approximately 45% for dryland forest types. An innovative new analysis of global drylands using high-resolution satellite imagery has ‘found’ 467 million hectares of previously unreported forest—an area equivalent to 60% of the size of Australia.

These results, just published in Science, are set to drastically improve the accuracy of global models of terrestrial carbon sinks and carbon inventories submitted under international climate conventions including the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

Moreover, by revealing that drylands—which make up about 40% of Earth’s land surface—have a greater capacity to support trees and forest than previously perceived and understood, a unique chance to mitigate climate change impacts through large-scale dryland conservation and afforestation actions is presented.


A Baobab forest in Senegal, a few kilometers away from Dakar (image courtesy of FAO/Faidutti)

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the University of Adelaide, TERN and a dozen other public and private institutions from all continents, stems from the FAO’s Global Drylands Assessment phase of the Global Forest Survey.

The team analysed very high spatial and temporal resolution satellite imagery of more than 210,000 dryland monitoring plots to calculate global forest cover and its change over time. TERN’s national network of over 500 ecosystem observation plots and the field data collected at them were used to complete the Oceania component of the study.

The resources provided by TERN are the only global plot-based data source readily available and accurate enough to validate satellite imagery, verify the observed density of trees, and assess observer accuracy. In fact, TERN ecosystem observation plots are so vital to the project that the FAO is working on permanently incorporating them into their global forest-monitoring network.

Pilbara woodland - Australia

Recent advances in satellite imagery, as well as new data collected and made available by TERN, have enabled researchers to greatly improve our mapping of drylands forest ecosystems, like the Coolabah forest (Eucalyptus victrix) in the Pilbara region of Western Australia shown above (image courtesy TERN)

Project member Danilo Mollicone of the FAO said the decision to use TERN infrastructure and expertise was made thanks to TERN’s proven expertise and research infrastructure in Australia’s arid ecosystems.

“TERN’s infrastructure and expertise is vital to the FAO and the successful completion of our Global Drylands Assessment,” says Danilo.

“The data we collect via TERN fills an important information gap that ensures the project has worldwide coverage.  With such global coverage we were able to accurately obtain estimates on tree cover, forest extension and land use in the drylands.”

“Over time, our ongoing partnership with TERN, will also help the project identify spatial and temporal changes and trends within ecosystems and between continents as biological and non-biological influences come into play.”

Associate Professor Ben Sparrow of the University of Adelaide and TERN AusPlots, led Australia’s involvement in the project and seconds Danillo’s call for ongoing monitoring.

“Dryland forests play an increasingly important role in preventing desertification, maintaining livelihoods and mitigating the impacts of climate change at regional and global scales, so it’s vital that we continue to monitor the long-term trends in dryland forest cover and quality,” says Ben.

TERN looks forward to further strengthening our relationship with the FAO and continuing to provide the infrastructure, data and expertise required to complete this ongoing study that has already delivered such positive and timely global outcomes for our ecosystems.

This article has also been published in:

TERN newsletter May 2017

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And, used in this Conversation article:

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Angry summers and the ecosystem science of heat waves

As Australia swelters through another hot summer, a team of researchers is using TERN data to assess how heat waves affect the energy balance, carbon uptake, water use, and overall health of Australia’s ecosystems.

2017 has kicked off with severe heat waves throughout Australia’s southern and eastern states and it seems there’s more hot weather on its way. We know heat waves can pose risks to our power supply, public transport, and personal health, but how do our ecosystems respond?

Thanks to TERN’s flux monitoring infrastructure, data now exist to enable researchers to investigate the impact that heat waves have on Australian ecosystems. This work is especially important to help us plan for a future that is likely to include more frequent and extreme heat wave conditions.


To see what happens to ecosystems during heat waves, researchers have used data from seven TERN OzFlux sites located in three distinct climate and ecosystem types: Mediterranean woodlands (red dots), temperate woodlands (light green dots), and a temperate forest (dark green dot). Data collected by the flux tower at TERN’s Great Western Woodlands SuperSite in WA (below) was one of the Mediterranean woodland sites (photo courtesy of Suzanne Long)


The angry summer of ‘13

To see what happens to ecosystems during heat waves, researchers have used the data captured by several TERN flux towers during the ‘Angry Summer of 2012/2013’.

The study across southern Australia combined data on carbon and water exchange (or fluxes) between the land and atmosphere with results from CSIRO’s BIOS2 model to investigate the effect of the 2012/’13 heat wave on six woodlands and one forest known for their resilience toward hot and dry conditions.

Ecosystems can switch from carbon sink to source

Dr Eva van Gorsel of the Australian National University and Dr James Cleverly of the University of Technology Sydney are part of the investigative team, whose work has just been published in the journal Biogeosciences.

“The heat wave caused increased respiration in all ecosystems, and carbon uptake was reduced so much at woodland sites that they switched into carbon sources,” says Eva. “Unlike the woodland ecosystems that were severely impacted by the heat wave, the forest site kept sequestering carbon during this short-term heat extreme.”

“But, what we also found is that the heat wave depleted the available soil water at the forest site, leaving the ecosystem highly vulnerable to heat events of higher intensity or longer duration,” adds James.

Ecosystem resilience and recovery

The research team, made up of 20 Australian and international researchers, also investigated the impact intermittent rain has on the recovery of ecosystems following heat waves.

They found that the temperate woodlands recovered quickly following rain after the first, more intense part of the heat wave, whereas the Mediterranean woodlands remained carbon sources throughout the duration of the heat wave.

The team reported in their paper that “The response of the woodlands is the first direct evidence that the carbon sinks of large areas of Australia may not be sustainable in a future climate with an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves.”

Australian heat waves unlike those overseas

Project researcher Dr. Sebastian Wolf of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) says that there is a fundamental difference in this Australian heat wave to what has previously been observed in Europe and US.

“Heat waves in Europe and California have been shown to result in surplus energy (from reduced cloud coverage) that, in combination with drying, leads to a feedback loop that further increases surface temperatures.”

“But, in contrast to these other studies, incoming radiation and available energy were largely unaffected by the 2013 heat wave in Australia. The heating feedback in the woodlands was driven by drying and thus shifts of the available energy towards sensible heat, thereby warming the surface even further. In the forest ecosystem this feedback was not observed.”

“These findings highlight the important role Australian forest ecosystems play in mitigating the effects of heat waves.”

Predicting a more extreme future

This study highlights the important ecosystem services Australia’s woodlands and forests provide—particularly considering the increased prevalence of droughts and temperature extremes projected in the future—and is another example of how TERN’s infrastructure is continuing to catalyse advances in our knowledge of the land-atmosphere exchange of carbon and water across a range of ecosystems.

By accumulating more data about ecosystem processes, uniquely captured via TERN’s flux towers, researchers can contribute to improve our understanding of ecosystem functioning.

A better understanding of ecosystem processes is critical for further development of predictive models which are needed to predict the impacts extreme climatic events will have on Australia’s ecosystems and their services into the future.

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter January 2017


And, by the Australian Energy and Water Exchange Initiative (OzEWEX)


Fire danger rating today, tomorrow, in 2030, in 2070?

Roadside signs tell us what today’s fire danger is, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what it will be in the future under a changing climate?  Well, thanks to new research by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW OEH) and the University of New South Wales we now have projections of changes in fire danger for up to 60 years in the future.

The work assessed McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI)—observations of temperature, humidity and wind speed with an estimate of the fuel state—under NARCliM climate projections for each State Planning Region of NSW and ACT. The study predicted increases in severe fire weather across much of NSW, which in turn suggest that when fires do occur, they will be harder to control.

Such findings have significant implications for fire planning and management and have the potential to change the way fire hazard is forecast and managed.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage has made use of TERN eMAST and the NCI’s data services to publish key data on past and forecast projections of severe fire danger across large parts of eastern Australia
Click here to access the NSW OEH NARCliM dataset via the eMAST data portal

The good news is that fire researchers, managers and policy makers have open-access to all the data behind this research thanks to TERN’s Ecosystem Modelling And Scaling infrasTructure (eMAST) and fellow NCRIS capability the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI).

Over 90 data products are now hosted by the NCI and openly accessible via the eMAST website. The data, available in two different resolutions (approx. 50km and 10km), give modelled hind-cast fire frequency predictions for 1950-2009 and forecast predictions for near future (2020-2039) and far future (2060-2079) periods for NSW, parts of QLD, Vic and SA on a daily basis.

The data provides policy makers, land managers and researchers with access to accurate and temporally fine-scaled information with which to make hazard reduction and management strategies.  The data has been provided in a rotated pole grid mapping projection for its ease of use by the Regional Climate Modelling (RCM) community.

Yvonne Scorgie, a senior team leader within the NSW OEH’s Climate and Atmospheric Science Branch, says that there were a number of reasons why they chose to publish the data via TERN.

“We chose to publish via TERN as it has a demonstrated approach to open-data and its data portals are well known by Australia’s research community,” says Yvonne.

“TERN’s data infrastructure works well for large scientific datasets like this and includes the mechanisms that allow our datasets to be easily discoverable by the wider community.”

“The NSW OEH is committed to open data, and it’s great to have facilities such as TERN that allow us to do this,” add Yvonne.

eMAST director, Dr Brad Evans of the University of Sydney, shares Yvonne’s enthusiasm for collaboration and open data. “It’s great to be partnering with the OEH to make this important data openly accessible to the wider science community,” says Brad.

“I have no doubt that open access to these data via TERN eMAST will facilitate innovative new research and policy that will vastly improve the predictions scientists make about the ways in which climate change might be manifested and the way we manage severe fire events.”

“We have seen this in our other collaborative project with the NSW OEH, and Macquarie University, in which eMAST climate data are being used to help identify climate refugia, so I am sure that the newly made available fire data will facilitate similarly important research.”

“It’s great to know that TERN’s data infrastructure is improving our land management strategies and helping answer some of Australia’s most challenging ecosystem science questions.”

  • The NSW OEH McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index data are openly available for download via the eMAST website.
  • For more information on the data and how it’s being used by the collaborative projects in this article please contact Brad Evans.



Fire danger rating sign images courtesy of Northern Territory Fire and Rescue Service and Wikimedia Commons Davidonformosa (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Published in TERN newsletter April 2016

Data in demand: Australian flux data downloads surge thanks to new global open-access

An international network of high-tech flux measuring towers enables us to watch continents breathe in and out, every hour, every day, over all seasons and across the changing years. This global flux-measuring network, called FluxNet, has over 700 sites and the Australian component, OzFlux, has about 30 sites.

Data from 28 of the 30 OzFlux sites are now openly accessible via FluxNet. OzFlux datasets are internationally recognised as being of a very high quality and containing very few data gaps and errors—as measured by the data’s energy balance closure.

Good quality data and easy collaboration with the OzFlux network through its data manager Peter Isaac make OzFlux a preferred partner in collaborations with FluxNet but also other international organisations, including with NASA who use OzFlux data to link water, energy and carbon cycles with their SMAP (soil moisture active passive) mission.

The new FluxNet access arrangements are making it easier for researchers all over the world to access and download Australian flux data. For example, data from the Tumbarumba flux station—one of the few southern hemisphere sites that has provided records for longer than a decade—has been downloaded over 100 times since becoming available via the FluxNet site in January 2016.

The global flux measuring network, FluxNet, has over 700 sites and the Australian component, TERN OzFlux, has about 30 sites. Data on the exchanges of heat, water and carbon dioxide between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere collected by OzFlux are now openly-accessible via FluxNet. (Graphics by Housen Chu, UCB Data sources (FLUXNET, ICOS, AmeriFlux &, accessed in June, 2015).


Data from Tumbarumba flux station (above) are being downloaded and used by researchers from all over the world to create new science that advances our knowledge of the land-air exchanges of carbon and water across a range of ecosystems

Tumbarumba site manager and Director of TERN’s OzFlux facility, Dr Eva van Gorsel of CSIRO, says that the number of people accessing the data from outside Australia has increased since the new access arrangement.

“Tumbarumba flux data have been downloaded by researchers all over the world,” says Eva. “I’ve received notice of downloads from the USA, including from NASA, all over Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Italy, and from China and Japan in Asia.  It’s fantastic to see that people are accessing the data and it’s even more exciting to think of the new science that’s being done with it.”

Scientists’ analysis of the data improves our understanding of the response of ecosystems to climate variability, disturbance (including fire, droughts, insects), land management and current and future changes in precipitation, temperature and carbon dioxide levels.

“When people download the data from Tumbarumba they give a brief description of the data’s intended use,” says Eva.  “I was really happy to see such a diverse list of data applications.”

“Studies include work on spatial and temporal variation of the carbon exchange and water use. A lot of work focuses on the functional relationships between environmental drivers and fluxes and ecosystem responses to a changing climate and extreme events such as heat waves. A large body of work is used to improve remotely-sensed products and for model development, testing and benchmarking.”

“But it’s not only pure research that these data are facilitating.  People are using the data for educational purposes in teaching science and data analysis—a really fantastic outcome,” recalls Eva.

The application of data from Tumbarumba is just one of the many examples of how the networks and data being delivered through TERN’s OzFlux facility are being increasingly frequently used in diverse multidisciplinary research contexts.  OzFlux infrastructure continues to catalyse advances in our knowledge of the land-air exchanges of carbon and water across a range of ecosystems and meteorological conditions.


This article has also been published in TERN newsletter April 2016

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Improved bushfire behaviour prediction for Tasmania

The 2016 Tasmanian bushfires have been described as the worst crisis in decades for world heritage forests.  Seventy fires that started by a severe dry lightning storm on 13 January burnt more than 124,000 Ha over a month and a half—affecting about 2% of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area—and have been linked to human-induced climate change by recent research. As the maps on the news portrayed, fires burnt across western Tasmania affecting a range of vegetation types including tall wet forests such as those at the TERN Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite.

Even while the fires were still burning in other parts of Tassie, University of Tasmania Biological Sciences PhD student James Furlaud was camped amongst the tall eucalypts at the Warra SuperSite collecting post-fire data on forest fuel loads.

“The goal of my project is to improve current and future bushfire behaviour models and calibrate them specifically for Tasmanian wet forests,” says James.  ‘Current bushfire behaviour models used in Tasmania are calibrated for fuel loads in Victoria, so a field-based assessment of Tasmanian fuel loads is critical.”

big_tree 800

James collects data on fuel load at a monitoring plot located at the Warra SuperSite—part of TERN’s Australian SuperSite Network—that will be used to estimate the surface, elevated, and bark fuel loads, and a number of qualitative measures that are commonly used by fire managers

James, who is partly supported by the Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC, has done fuel load surveys at eight monitoring plots located at the Warra SuperSite—part of TERN’s Australian SuperSite Network—using a methodology based off of the TERN AusPlots Forests methodology that’s openly available via the TERN website.

“The sampling is designed primarily to estimate the surface, elevated, and bark fuel loads, but also makes a number of qualitative measures that are commonly used by fire managers.  I can then model these fuel loads as a function of time since previous fire.  This will create fuel accumulation curves that are compatible with current and future fire behaviour prediction models.”

“Behaviour models predict fuel load as a function of time since previous fire.  This is why the TERN chronosequence plots at the Warra long-term ecological research site are so valuable: they allow me to simultaneously sample fuel loads across a range of differently aged forests and quantify how fuel loads increase as a forest ages.”

Four of the eight plots James surveyed overlap with AusPlots. By sampling at these sites James is able to use nationwide AusPlots data to compare how fuel loads vary across both chronological and ecological gradients. Such comparison will allow James to examine how fuel accumulation rates might change with climate change.

The ultimate goal of this project is to develop improved bushfire behaviour prediction models.  This will allow for updated risk assessments, an improved ability to evaluate fuel management regimes, and better fire suppression decisions.

James’ supervisor, Professor David Bowman, says “Given that such destructive fires are likely to become more common in Tasmania under a warming and drying climate, James’s research will form an important part of improving our fire risk assessments, fuel management regimes and increasing the capacity to attack fires quickly and efficiently.  It is research like this that will help better manage future fire crises in Tasmania and in other forest environments around Australia.”

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter April 2016:

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And, by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC:

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Lasers, drones, and tree climbers measuring Tassie’s World Heritage forests

Equipped with a mountain of high-tech reminiscent of science fiction flicks, scientists and volunteers recently spent a week working in the UNESCO World Heritage Area of Tasmania to measure the composition and architecture of tall eucalypt forests that have regenerated naturally from past wildfires.

Recently, a group of scientists and volunteers from the University of Tasmania, the University of Queensland, the CSIRO, and Forestry Tasmania descended on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area for a week of field work supported by TERN’s AusCover facility.

The team used a suite of high-tech equipment, including laser scanners, drones and planes to scan, measure and document the state of the forest at TERN’s Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite, part of the Australian SuperSite Network.

The Warra SuperSite is partly within the UNESCO listed Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which is managed for conservation, and partly within State forest, which is managed for multiple purposes including wood production. The site was established in 1998 to better understand the fundamental ecological processes in E. obliqua forests, to assess the rich biodiversity, and to determine the long-term effects of forest management regimes.

A drone (left) and TERN’s DWEL terrestrial laser scanner (right) were just part of a suite of high-tech equipment that scientists used to measure and document the forest like never before.  It wasn’t all fun and games for the team though, with a heap of data waiting for processing at the end of a long day of work (middle) (photos courtesy of Peter Scarth)

Over the week of fieldwork, ground-based teams used advanced terrestrial laser scanners, including TERN’s new DWEL scanner, to capture the three-dimensional structure of the forest beneath the forest canopy within a 25 square kilometre area. A tree climber, a slingshot, and a sharp shooter were all used to sample leaves from high in the canopy to learn about their spectral signatures and chemical composition.

For the first time in the AusCover project’s history, several small drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), carrying multiple sensors were deployed by the coordinator of the AusCover Tasmania node, Arko Lucieer from the University of Tasmania. These UAVs were deployed to capture imagery from a unique perspective above the forest. The drone generated 3D models of the forest, and collected infrared images that will enable scientists to learn about the variety of tree species present in the forest. These UAV observations also allow researchers to link the detailed ground observations to the satellite observations covering much larger areas.

The view above the 80 m tall OzFlux tower at TERN’s Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite taken by the team’s ‘OktoKopter’ multi-rotor UAV, or drone. The OktoKopter UAV was flown at about 120 m above the ground, with its high-resolution camera capturing 300 images every 5-minute flight. The overlapping images captured during each flight are stitched together and used by scientists to make 3D models of the forest canopy’s structure.

Airborne Research Australia (ARA), a research wing of Flinders University, also conducted a number of flights over the site, during which the aircraft used advanced hyperspectral and LiDAR scanning to measure the 3D structure of trees and discover how the trees absorb and scatter light.

AusCover collaborator Dr Peter Scarth, of the University of Queensland, was one of those carrying out the fieldwork and says that all the data collected will be made openly accessible via AusCover’s data portal to help facilitate new science. These new datasets will help to answer complex questions about the composition and role of this ecosystem, including the total biomass and carbon stored in these old forests.

‘Trips like this are a significant investment in both time and money so it’s critical that all the data collected is captured in a way so that nothing is lost, it has comprehensive metadata and becomes free to access and reuse,’ writes Peter in his comprehensive online blog about the field campaign.  ‘…Our various devices automatically uploaded over 500mb of data as soon as we were back in mobile range to the AusCover ODK Aggregate server so it’s safely backed up and ready to access using standard database tools. From here, it will be merged with any instrument data, checked for errors, and then uploaded to the AusCover portal for anyone to access. Cool.’

Arko Lucieer  who led the weeklong Warra field campaign, says that such research and data provision wouldn’t be possible without the infrastructure provided by TERN and the support it receives via the Federal Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

‘The collaboration of ecologists and remote sensing scientists using state-of-the-art sensor technology allows us to answer difficult questions about these complex ecosystems,’ says Arko.

For example, research and data collection exercises such as these have already led to a better understanding of how harvesting methods for use in tall, wet eucalypt forests can meet social, ecological and silvicultural objectives while still being safe and productive.

This project is just one illustration of how TERN’s shared research infrastructure is allowing Australia’s ecosystem scientists to collaborate and synthesise effectively across regions and disciplines.

‘So that was a wrap – the week went really well and we achieved all we set out to collect, and more,’ concludes Peter on his blog. ‘Thanks to all the team and the Forestry Tasmania folk who came down to help, discuss, lug gear, cook, wash up, climb over decaying logs, work ridiculous hours and above all have a great time, share and learn from each other.’

A quick scan of the team using the Riegl TLS LiDAR scanner at the Warra Flux Tower (photo courtesy of Peter Scarth)

  • To read more about the fieldwork at Warra click here to view Peter’s blog.
  • For more information on AusCover’s fieldwork at Warra and Arko’s research on drones for environmental monitoring clickhere and here.
  • For more information on TERN’s DWEL scanner click here and here.
  • For more information on Airborne Research Australia please contact Flinders University’s Jorg M. Hacker.

To find out more about how LiDAR works take a look at this video produced by our partners at the USA’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON):

Originally published in TERN newsletter February 2015

Published in Tasmanian Geographic May 20015

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Circulated in CSIRO’s Science by Email in February 2015

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The importance of early-stage dynamics in rainforests

For 50 years scientists have been monitoring the rainforest trees at Dinden and Lamington National Parks in Queensland.  Established by Prof Joseph Connell in 1963 and funded by USA’s National Science Foundation until 2003 and by TERN’s Long Term Ecosystem Research Network since 2012, the Connell Rainforest Plot Network facilitates important long-term research into the development and life-cycle dynamics of tropical rainforests – home to about half the world’s biodiversity despite covering less than 6% of the Earth’s surface.

The site’s research infrastructure is being used by both Australian and international scientists to conduct research into how our tropical and subtropical rainforests develop and sustain themselves.  Among those using the site are Dr Peter Green of La Trobe University and Prof Kyle Harms of Louisiana State University. Dr Peter Green, LTERN Plot Leader of the Connell Rainforest Plot Network, assumed responsibility for this important research infrastructure after Prof Connell retired. The story of this succession is told in LTERN’s recent publication on insights and lessons from long-term research.

This international research team has recently published 50 years worth of rainforest research from the plot network in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal.

Between 1971 and 2013 the study monitored about 8,000 trees of 186 different species and conducted 13 mortality censuses during the 42-year period. The sample of trees included all size classes, from tiny seedlings large canopy trees. As expected the team found that smaller trees die more often than larger ones, but the really interesting result was that their deaths had a major diversifying influence on the whole rainforest.

‘Species richness of the survivors was up to 30% greater than expected in the two smallest size classes, but not greater than expected in the larger size classes,’ write Green and his co-authors.

The paper’s findings support, for the first time, a long-standing paradigm in forest ecology that says that rainforest diversity is driven by early life-cycle dynamics. The processes that occur at the plants’ earliest life cycle stages largely determine forest diversity and the abundance of mature trees down the track. Put simply, what happens now in rainforests will continue to impact on their development for hundreds of years.

Researchers take a break from collecting data on the final day of the fiftieth-anniversary census of the Connell Rainforest Plot Network

Without long-term data and research infrastructure, like what is available to researchers at the Connell Plots, it would be impossible to study the developmental stages of forests and understand how they change over time as a result of natural and human-induced factors.

‘Tropical trees can live for hundreds if not thousands of years, so if we are to understand the development of these trees we need to do very long-term studies to capture the dynamics,’ says Green during a recent interview about the study on ABC Radio National.

The paper’s findings corroborate the importance that tropical ecologists have traditionally assigned to early-stage dynamics, and calls for greater and more widespread inclusion of the smallest size classes into large, plot-based tropical forest dynamics projects worldwide.

Data from the Connell Rainforest Plot Network are accessible via either the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN) data portal or the TERN Data Discovery Portal. A selection of this data is also featured in this month’s Data Update.

Click here or on the image below to listen to the ABC Radio National interview.

Published in TERN newsletter January 2015

New research predicts collapse of mountain ash ecosystem

A recent study by researchers utilising decades of scientific monitoring from TERN’s Long Term Ecological Research Network(LTERN) has discovered that the mountain ash forests of Victoria’s highlands are at very high risk of collapse within half a century, driven by the effects of clearfell logging and bushfires.

The researchers applied an ecosystem risk assessment to the mountain ash forest ecosystem of the Central Highlands of Victoriausing the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems criteria.

The hollows of gnarled old mountain ash trees provide vital habitats for marsupials (photo courtesy David Blair) The mountain ash forests of Victoria are the endangered Leadbeater’s possums’ last remaining habitat (photo courtesy of Dan Harley)
Join the conversation on this topic below

To undertake the IUCN assessment, the team firstly documented the key factors that underpin the occurrence and persistence of the Mountain Ash ecosystem (i.e. its dependencies), and then predicted how likely it is that these dependencies will fail within 50-100 years. It was this examination of key ecosystem dependencies, how they have changed over-time, and are predicted to change in the future, that was a compelling part of their detailed assessment.

They discovered that, based on the IUCN protocol, the ecosystem is at a very high risk of collapse within approximately 50 years. In fact, the modelling suggests that under business-as-usual management, there is a 97% chance of ecosystem collapse.

The findings, published in the journal Austral Ecology, indicate that a new approach to managing this ecosystem is needed. In particular, the researchers advocate for greater protection of remaining areas of 1939 re-growth forest, and restoration activities in extensive other parts of the forest estate.

Mountain ash paper sparks heated conversation

In addition to the journal paper, the researchers contributing long term ecological research data to LTERN have also published a piece in The Conversation.  Since it’s publication the article has been commented on over 100 times and is generating a much-needed discussion regarding how best to protect and ensure the sustainability of this important ecosystem.

Co-author and LTERN facility leader Emma Burns, says that despite some people expressing their disagreements with the team’s management recommendations she is happy with the discussion that the article has generated.

‘We knew that our findings would come as a shock to many people, but we need to start having serious conversations about how we can avoid the collapse of Australia’s unique and vital ecosystems,’ says Emma.

‘Our findings highlight the importance for policy reform that leads to improved management of the mountain ash ecosystem, and getting people involved and talking about making these hard decisions is a step in the right direction.’

Emma and her fellow authors David Lindenmayer and Heather Keith invite you to read the read the article and join the conversation here:

Published in TERN newsletter December 2014

An echidna from Boston

Using Australia’s most advanced laser scanner to measure the health of our forests as never before

In the peaceful surrounds of the Karawatha forest in Brisbane’s southern suburbs, along the forest’s ‘echidna track’, sits, quite appropriately but slightly out of place, a bright orange echidna from Boston, USA.  ‘Danger, laser in use’ signs hint to passers-by that this isn’t your typical Australian echidna. This echidna is actually the most advanced terrestrial laser scanner in Australia, and one of only two in the world.

Operating the fluoro, giant letterbox-shaped echidna on this warm, slightly rainy, spring morning is Michael Schaefer of TERN’s AusCover facility. Michael, who is based at CSIRO in Canberra, and his team[i] are at Karawatha to scan the forest’s structure as never before and gain a wealth of useful data for future studies.

‘The new echidna laser scanner allows us to obtain unique, accurate and robust vegetation measurements that aren’t possible from other similar laser scanners,’ Michael says.


The echidna, officially called a dual wavelength echidna lidar (DWEL), contains two lasers of different wavelength that are used to create 3D images of forests in fine detail and provide a permanent record of a forest’s three-dimensional structure at a given growth stage.

During each scan, which takes approximately 45 minutes to complete, the DWEL’s lasers spin and swivel 360 degrees, taking up to 2000 measurements per second of everything within an approximate 60 meter radius. The DWEL is unique in that in one scan it can capture a complete hemisphere, unlike other scanners which require manual changes between scans and the joining of imagery post scanning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Laser scanners like the DWEL are making field work much easier and will save research organisations a huge amount of time and money in the long-run when it comes to man-power for field campaigns,’ says Michael.

The two lasers give maximum contrast between the green leaves and the woody vegetation within the radius, allowing researchers to derive detailed information about the green and woody biomass levels of a forest.

The DWEL system accurately measures the three-dimensional structure and position of a tree, allowing measurement of a number of key dimensions for  individual trees, which allows researchers to take detailed and precise data on the vegetation structure – from large tree trunks right down to individual leaves – as well as aiding in placing a carbon storage value on a forest.

Together with AusCover’s suite of terrestrial laser scanners and other equipment for measuring and monitoring vegetation, the new DWELL scanner will be used around Australia to improve continent-scale mapping of Australia’s vegetation [pdf].


‘Improving our continental maps of vegetation is really important as they are often then basis for management planning and ensuring the conservation of our valuable ecosystems,’ says Michael.  ‘It’s also important to have a national understanding of vegetation so we can map carbon stocks, which is required under international agreements, such as the Kyoto protocol.’

The week-long stay at TERN’s Karawatha node of the SEQ Periurban SuperSite (part of the Australian SuperSite Network) is the fourth stop on the echidna’s yearlong tour of Australia’s diverse ecosystems.

The echidna’s journey started back in May, when Michael travelled to Boston to personally receive and escort the echidna back to Australia – the quarter of a million dollar price tag helps explain the royal treatment Michael gives his echidna.

On his return to Australia, Michael and his team were itching to start scanning.  In June, after a few tests in the CSIRO carpark, they scanned the endangered grassy woodlands of Mulligan’s Flat Nature Reserve , near the ACT/NSW border. The data collected here will be used, initially for calibration of the DWEL scanner, but in the long term it will be used as another method to monitor vegetation structure and fire fuel loads.


In August the team were back in Canberra and scanning some of the 94 ‘forests’ that make up our national arboretum.  Here, DWEL images will be supplemented with those from CSIRO’s Zebedee handheld laser scanner to monitor the growth, plant morphology, and health of some of the 48,000 trees including rare, endangered and symbolic trees from Australia and around the world.

Next stop on the echidna’s tour is TERN’s Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite in Tasmania. After that they’re off to scan at the Victorian Dry Eucalypt, Calperum Mallee, FNQ Rainforest, and Litchfield National Park SuperSites.

The data from the scans at TERN’s SuperSites around Australia will be made publically available via TERN’s data infrastructure, ensuring that this work is accessible to researchers across the globe.

The progress and whereabouts of the echidna is updated regularly on the DWEL’s online blog.  For more information on DWEL please contact Michael Schaefer.

The DWEL has been joint funded by TERN and the CSIRO.

[i] The collaborative field team on hand at Karawatha forest was made up of people from TERN, CSIRO, Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts (DSITIA) and The University of Queensland.

Published in TERN newsletter October 2014