The frustrations and importance of long-term ecology

Conducting field experimental ecology is a frustrating business. There is little debate that to understand ecosystem response to environmental change we need field experiments which last as long as possible. It often takes a long time to see any change and sometimes initial changes do not represent long-term response. The Park Grass experiment at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire (UK) is the world’s oldest ecological experiment, established in 1856 to finds ways to maximise hay yields. One hundred and sixty one years later it is still throwing-up surprises and producing Nature papers. It has become perhaps the most important experiment in ecology not because the treatments are particularly interesting (they aren’t) but because it has been going so long that we now have a huge wealth of data with which to test ecological theory. It is frustrating therefore that most funding agencies support research which lasts no more than about three years. In reality this means that researchers rarely have more than two seasons of data collection, and frequently less than that. Many field experiments end up being removed just as they are getting interesting!

In 2010 we established a climate change experiment on a peat bog in west Wales. We think this experiment is pretty neat. It is one of only half a dozen climate change experiments in boreal bogs globally (the only one on a UK raised bog) and has a unique pumping system for simulating summer drought. The experiment was initially funded through a European project (‘PEATBOG’) for three years. It took most of the first year to set up the experiment and most of the second year to optimise performance. While some things we monitored changed quite quickly, we saw little change in many others over this first two years. Despite warming the peat surface by a couple of degrees the plant communities did not change at all despite abundant evidence to suggest that peatland plant communities are sensitive to warming. It was clear that two years just wasn’t long enough. As the funding came to an end we were faced with the choice of whether to abandon the experiment or try to keep it going. We opted for the latter and there have certainly been days when I have regretted that decision! Myself and the other post-doc on the project both moved on and got other jobs. Fortunately my job gave me enough flexibility that I could keep making the long drive from central Scotland to west Wales to keep the experiment ticking over, but that could only ever be a short-term solution. Things took a turn for the better when we managed to get some NERC funding for a PhD studentship and recruited a brilliant student. The problem with getting funding for an experiment which already exists is that funders do not like to support pre-existing research… even if the original questions are still valid and interesting. Instead it is necessary to find new questions which can be asked using the same experiment. For us this involved bringing in a sea level dimension in our flooding-prone coastal site. All was well for a few years but all-too-soon the PhD was coming to an end and we were again faced with the prospect of either abandoning the experiment or reinventing it again. By this point we had started to see changes in some things which didn’t change in the initial period of the experiment. We began to see increasing abundance of White-Beaked Sedge, shading out the Sphagnum moss but this was only really apparent around the edges of the plots which experience the greatest warming. It was clear that we still needed more time to understand the ecosystem response. Again we foolishly decided to try to keep the experiment going. This time our reinvention involved trying to integrate palaeoecology with experimental ecology. As a palaeoecologist who somehow ended up doing experimental ecology this is an idea which is close to my heart and I think it is pretty important. However funding agencies haven’t always agreed! I was therefore delighted to hear last week that we have been successful in an application to The Leverhulme Trust. I will probably write more about this project in a future blog but one of the key outcomes is that the future of the experiment is now secure through to 2020. For now I just want to thank Leverhulme for the funding and urge you all to go out and buy Unilever products! I’d also like to take the opportunity to plug the PhD studentship which forms part of the project. This is now advertised and I would be really grateful if readers of this blog could help spread the word far and wide. Thanks! Details:

https://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=85094&LID=1601

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