Ancient and modern threats to Sir Arthur’s woodlands – forests of temperate climates

Frank GilliamIn a new guest post, author Frank Gilliam tells the story behind his Tansley review, ‘Forest ecosystems of temperate climatic regions: from ancient use to climate change‘. Find out more about the Tansley reviews series, and search the database, here.

I suspect that I am not alone among my fellow plant ecologists in having professional ‘heroes’—individuals who played crucial roles early in our careers, who helped form our vision of the field and how we go about pursuing it, and who, even now, hold special places in our intellect and emotions.  Two such individuals for me—Henry Chandler Cowles and Sir Arthur Tansley—happened to be friends and colleagues in their time, serving as an excellent example of something I find essential in any ecological discipline:  spanning the scope of our efforts on ‘both sides of the Pond,’ and farther beyond.  It is indeed quite fitting that it was in an article honouring Cowles that Sir Arthur famously coined one of the more salient terms of our field—ecosystem.

Accordingly, it was an exceptional and exciting honour for me to have been asked by New Phytologist to write a Tansley review, made even more so because they were interested in an article on temperate forests, the very forest type that inspired the young Arthur as a boy (Fig. 1).  Although I would never exalt my science to the high level of Tansley’s, I do feel a close personal connection with him in that we both allowed the primordial awe of forests we experienced in our youth to become transfigured into our professional study of them.

Figure 1 from Gilliam (2016): Kingley Vale, West Sussex, England. Photo credit: David D. Williams
Figure 1 from Gilliam (2016): Kingley Vale, West Sussex, England. Photo credit: David D. Williams.

Cliché though it sounds, sometimes timing is everything.  I had the good fortune of attending the Joint Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society and Société Française d’Ecologie, in Lille, France, in 2014.  It was there that I purchased, and then read, one of the better biographies of Sir Arthur Tansley:  Shaping Ecology—The Life of Arthur Tansley, by Peter Ayres (Wiley-Blackwell).  The reading of this book revealed Tansley’s personal life in a way I had not previously known, and one that led to framing my review.

The central themes are conveyed in the title—ancient forest use and anthropogenic climate change.  We have been hearing of the environmental disaster of tropical deforestation which began at a wide scale around the mid-20th century.  Not to diminish the seriousness of this phenomenon, but temperate deforestation goes back several millennia, particularly in Europe and China, and including extensive cutting of many parts of England during the Roman Empire.  Native Americans manipulated fire regimes of eastern forests in ways to improve food stores and game browse.  In short, human populations, even extensive civilizations, have been connected with temperate forests since nearly pre-historic times.  This knowledge challenges our preconceived notions of pristine conditions.  Thus, I greatly support use of the term Anthropocene as a more appropriate term (versus Holocene) for our current era.

Currently, temperate forests are under an unprecedented threat of global change, one of the more profound components being climate change.  In the review, I chose three particular ramifications of this threat:  effects of increasing nitrogen (N) on temperate forests, climate change-mediated changes in phenology and species distributions, and climate-altered frequencies of drought and fire.  These are not the only ones, but are certainly all quite serious.

Although it is unlikely that Tansley could have imagined the truly global extent—here in the 21st century—of human perturbations on temperate forests, it is clear that he had a deep appreciation for the profound potential that ‘human tribes’ have in deleteriously altering these forests that had meant so much to him as a young boy.  Thus, I was quite honoured to have given him the final word in my review that bears his name.

Read the associated press release.

Read the paper: Gilliam, F. S. (2016), Forest ecosystems of temperate climatic regions: from ancient use to climate change. New Phytologist. doi: 10.1111/nph.14255


Frank S. Gilliam
Department of Biological Sciences, Marshall University, Huntington, WV, USA.