Brussels, 11 Jul 2003
A worldwide network of forest canopy observatories is being developed as part of a programme to improve our understanding of what is described as 'nature's last biotic frontier'.
The initiative, called the global canopy programme (GCP), evolved from a European science foundation and US national science foundation workshop held in 1999. A key element of the programme is the '20:20 vision for forest canopy research', which involves the construction of a network of 20 canopy observatories that will monitor biodiversity and the impact of global change over a 20 year period.
The 20:20 vision is being launched in London on 11 July, and with 10 observatories already operational in locations such as Germany, Switzerland, Panama and Madagascar, the next challenge is to create sites in 'biodiversity hotspots' such as Brazil, Ecuador, India and Africa.
Professor Ghillean Prance from the Royal botanical gardens in Kew explains the importance of such a global initiative: 'There is a lot of canopy biology now happening around the world, in my opinion not enough, but what is happening needs to be better coordinated so that similar problems can be addressed in different parts of the world.'
A traditional obstacle to such research is the difficulty of accessing canopies as high as 90 metres above the forest floor. A range of methods have been tried in the past, including the use of satellites and even trained monkeys. More recently, however, giant construction cranes have emerged as the most productive tool.
From a basket suspended from the crane, scientists can access up to two hectares of forest in three dimensions in complete safety. New access techniques are also in development, including the use of towers and balloons. Once in the forest canopy, researchers can then begin to study its interactions with the atmosphere, its role in climate change processes, and the diverse life forms that it contains.
'Forest canopies contain perhaps half of all life on earth,' explains Crispin Tickell, Director of the green college centre for environmental policy and understanding. 'They are certain to play a key role in mitigating climate change and their good health is part of the health of the global ecosystem. [...] The global canopy programme promises a significant increase in cooperation among forest researchers and conservationists, many of them pioneers in what is a relatively new area of environmental science.'
While GCP is expected to vastly improve our basic understanding of forest canopy life and its relationship with the rest of the ecosystem, it should also deliver some important social benefits. Goods such as food, and services such as the interception of water, represent two examples of benefits that humans derive from forest canopies. GCP will investigate and identify the benefits and social value that canopies provide at a global and community level.
Finally, those involved in GCP also hope that the results of their work will provide scientific support and incentives for governments to pursue forest conservation policies, and lead to education and outreach activities to communicate the results of the programme to the wider public.
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