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Forests in the Anthropocene

Forests are multifaceted ecosystems that perform an array of essential functions that both directly and indirectly impact humanity. They act as a nexus of the Earth system’s climate, hydrology and biogeochemical cycles. This function is all the more relevant in the Anthropocene, an epoch characterised by humanity’s impact on our planet, given the vast amounts of carbon locked up in tree biomass that help buffer against anthropogenic carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Forests are also hubs of biodiversity that provide essential resources and services to communities, but they are vulnerable to degradation and deforestation. The study of forests, which also includes their restoration, conservation and sustainable use, thus encompasses a broad suite of scientific disciplines, and research in this field is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

This collection has been curated by the Earth science and Ecology editorial teams at Nature Communications in the hope that it will provide a helpful resource for researchers and decision makers in this increasingly interdisciplinary field. The collection is divided into four themes: climate-forest feedbacks, the forest-human interface, the forest carbon sink, and communities and ecosystems. This collection will be updated with new research and opinion pieces on a regular basis.

The editorial accompanying this collection discusses our evolving history with forests and how science can guide us towards living sustainably with these key ecosystems. 

The effect of plants on future extreme heat events under elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) is unclear. Here, the authors show that CO2 plant physiological effects lead to increases in heat waves within a suite of climate model simulations, suggesting that vegetated areas are at risk of increased heat extremes.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

It has been suggested that tree phenology may be regulated by climatic oscillations. Here, Detto et al. present a 30 year tropical forest dataset that suggests leaf and fruit production is coordinated with ENSO cycles, with greater leaf fall observed prior to El Niño followed by greater seed production.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Depending on where and when it occurs, vegetation cover change can affect local climate by altering the surface energy balance. Based on satellite data, this study provides the first data-driven assessment of such effects for multiple vegetation transitions at global scale.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Deforestation carbon emissions from the Brazilian Amazon have declined steeply, but how much drought-induced forest fire emissions add to this process is still unclear. Here the authors show that gross emissions from forest fires are more than half as great as those from deforestation during drought years.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Climate oscillations affect weather on different temporal-spatial scales, which poses difficulty in understanding how they influence tree reproduction. Here Ascoli et al. show relationships between low- and high-frequency components of the NAO and masting in two European tree species across multiple decades.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) drives biological responses in terrestrial ecosystems through oscillatory modes of climatic variability. Here, the authors show how landscape scale productivity responses to NAO are contingent upon the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation in southwestern Europe.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Drought has a major influence on plant distribution. Here, Swenson et al. show that a similar gene expression response to experimental drought outperforms traditional functional traits and phylogenetic relatedness as a predictor of co-occurrence of tree species in a natural stand.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Relatively little is understood about seasonal effect of climate change on the Amazon rainforest. Here, the authors show that Amazon forest loss in response to dry-season intensification during the last glacial period was likely self-amplified by regional vegetation-rainfall feedbacks.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Forests impact continental-scale moisture recycling, but their impact on regional-scale cloud cover is little known. Here, using satellite observations, Teuling et al. illustrate enhanced cloud cover over regional forested areas in western Europe due to the establishment of a forest-breeze circulation.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Many species show a time-lagged response to climate change, a phenomenon called climatic debt. Here, Bertrand and colleagues show that climate severity and plant tolerance to climate warming mainly influence the climatic debt of forest herbaceous plant communities.

Article | open | | Nature Communications