Taking the pulse of Earth’s tropical forests using networks of highly distributed plots

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Tropical forests are the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. While better understanding of these
forests is critical for our collective future, until quite recently efforts to measure and monitor them have been
largely disconnected. Networking is essential to discover the answers to questions that transcend borders and the
horizons of funding agencies. Here we show how a global community is responding to the challenges of tropical
ecosystem research with diverse teams measuring forests tree-by-tree in thousands of long-term plots. We review
the major scientific discoveries of this work and show how this process is changing tropical forest science. Our
core approach involves linking long-term grassroots initiatives with standardized protocols and data management to generate robust scaled-up results. By connecting tropical researchers and elevating their status, our
Social Research Network model recognises the key role of the data originator in scientific discovery. Conceived in
1999 with RAINFOR (South America), our permanent plot networks have been adapted to Africa (AfriTRON) and Southeast Asia (T-FORCES) and widely emulated worldwide. Now these multiple initiatives are integrated via
ForestPlots.net cyber-infrastructure, linking colleagues from 54 countries across 24 plot networks. Collectively
these are transforming understanding of tropical forests and their biospheric role. Together we have discovered
how, where and why forest carbon and biodiversity are responding to climate change, and how they feedback on
it. This long-term pan-tropical collaboration has revealed a large long-term carbon sink and its trends, as well as
making clear which drivers are most important, which forest processes are affected, where they are changing,
what the lags are, and the likely future responses of tropical forests as the climate continues to change. By
leveraging a remarkably old technology, plot networks are sparkinga very modern revolution in tropical forest
science. In the future, humanity can benefit greatly by nurturing the grassroots communities now collectively
capable of generating unique, long-term understanding of Earth’s most precious forests
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Conservation
StatePublished - Oct 23 2020

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