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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. 

Forests of the Amazon Basin have experienced frequent and severe droughts in recent years with significant impacts on their carbon cycling. Here, using satellite LiDAR samples from 2003 to 2008, the authors show the long-term legacy of these droughts with persistent loss of carbon stocks after the 2005 drought.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Degradation—the loss of carbon stored in intact woodland—is very difficult to measure over large areas. Here, the authors show that carbon emissions from degradation in African woodlands greatly exceed those from deforestation, but are happening alongside widespread increases in biomass in remote areas.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Invasive alien pests can cause large-scale forest mortality and release carbon stored in forests. Here the authors show that climate change increases the potential range of alien pests and that their impact on the carbon cycle could be as severe as the current natural disturbance regime in Europe’s forests.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

The existence of a pan-tropical forest carbon sink remains uncertain due to the lack of data from Asia. Here, using direct on-the-ground observations, the authors confirm remaining intact forests in Borneo have provided a long-term carbon sink, but carbon net gains are vulnerable to drought and edge effects.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Reliable estimates of the total forest carbon (C) pool are lacking due to insufficient information on dead organic matter (DOM). Here, the authors estimate that the current DOM C stock in China is 925 ± 54 Tg and that it grew by 6.7 ± 2.2 Tg C/yr over the past two decades primarily due to increasing forest area

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Vast quantities of carbon stored in tropical forests are threatened by deforestation. Here, using high resolution satellite data, Brinck et al. examine how edge effects influence carbon emissions and they find an additional 10.3 Gt of carbon are released by deforestation when including fragmentation effects.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Defaunation is linked to the decline of tree species that depend on large animals for seed dispersal, but it is unclear if this affects carbon storage. Here the authors show that defaunation effects on carbon storage vary across continents, driven by relationships between seed dispersal strategies and adult tree size.

Article | open | | Nature Communications

Site-level quantification of Net Ecosystem Production (NEP) and associated components rely on eddy covariance and biometric methods. Here these techniques are compared for global forest carbon fluxes, revealing differences in NEP, but similar estimates of ecosystem respiration and gross primary production.

Article | open | | Nature Communications