Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Slash and burn


Several independent lines of evidence suggest that Amazon forests have provided a significant carbon sink service, and also that the Amazon carbon sink in intact, mature forests may now be threatened as a result of different processes. There has however been no work done to quantify non-land-use-change forest carbon fluxes on a national basis within Amazonia, or to place these national fluxes and their possible changes in the context of the major anthropogenic carbon fluxes in the region. Here we present a first attempt to interpret results from ground-based monitoring of mature forest carbon fluxes in a biogeographically, politically, and temporally differentiated way. Specifically, using results from a large long-term network of forest plots, we estimate the Amazon biomass carbon balance over the last three decades for the different regions and nine nations of Amazonia, and evaluate the magnitude and trajectory of these differentiated balances in relation to major national anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Concepts: Climate change, Amazon River, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Amazon Rainforest, Slash and burn, Peruvian Amazon


Prior work shows western US forest wildfire activity increased abruptly in the mid-1980s. Large forest wildfires and areas burned in them have continued to increase over recent decades, with most of the increase in lightning-ignited fires. Northern US Rockies forests dominated early increases in wildfire activity, and still contributed 50% of the increase in large fires over the last decade. However, the percentage growth in wildfire activity in Pacific northwestern and southwestern US forests has rapidly increased over the last two decades. Wildfire numbers and burned area are also increasing in non-forest vegetation types. Wildfire activity appears strongly associated with warming and earlier spring snowmelt. Analysis of the drivers of forest wildfire sensitivity to changes in the timing of spring demonstrates that forests at elevations where the historical mean snow-free season ranged between two and four months, with relatively high cumulative warm-season actual evapotranspiration, have been most affected. Increases in large wildfires associated with earlier spring snowmelt scale exponentially with changes in moisture deficit, and moisture deficit changes can explain most of the spatial variability in forest wildfire regime response to the timing of spring.This article is part of the themed issue ‘The interaction of fire and mankind’.

Concepts: Hydrology, Vegetation, Arson, Ecological succession, Wildfire, Slash and burn, Controlled burn, Conflagration


• Premise of the study: We investigate factors supporting the persistence in southern China of a rare Tertiary relict tree species, Liriodendron chinense, which has been almost eliminated by recent land use conversion. We hypothesize that cultural practices and traditional sustainable forest resource uses provide niches for the species' regeneration that will complement infrequent natural disturbances, while the species' survival on remote mountain slopes where there are no humans depends on natural disturbances alone.• Methods: We examined and analyzed various landscape contexts, community associations, age distributions, and regeneration patterns of Liriodendron chinense.• Key results: Forest communities containing Liriodendron chinense were of three types: (1) village fengshui forests-mature forests dominated by Tertiary relict taxa Liriodendron, Toona, and Emmenopterys, protected for their supposed spiritual value; (2) young secondary forests near villages, dominated solely by Liriodendron; and (3) old secondary forest remnants on mountain slopes far from villages, dominated by Liriodendron with other Tertiary relicts of the genera Davidia and Sassafras. The age structure of Liriodendron indicated ample recruitment in the first two forest types, where the activities of local people have provided regeneration niches for the survival of this shade-intolerant pioneer species. On the remote mountain slopes that have never been converted to agriculture, Liriodendron has survived through regeneration made possible by natural disturbances.• Conclusions: The traditional human land use, influenced by cultural values, has supplemented infrequent natural disturbances, providing regeneration niches for this and other Tertiary remnant species near villages in mountain valleys, while on uninhabited mountain slopes the species depends on natural disturbances to survive.

Concepts: China, Ecosystem, Culture, Forest, Slash and burn, Secondary forest, Liriodendron, Magnoliaceae


Shifting cultivation is the main land-use system transforming landscapes in riverine Amazonia. Increased concentration of the human population around villages and increasing market integration during the last decades may be causing agricultural intensification. Studies have shown that agricultural intensification, i.e. higher number of swidden-fallow cycles and shorter fallow periods, reduces crop productivity of swiddens and the regrowth capacity of fallows, undermining the resilience of the shifting cultivation system as a whole. We investigated the temporal and spatial dynamics of shifting cultivation in Brazilian Amazonia to test the hypotheses that (i) agriculture has become more intensive over time, and (ii) patterns of land-use intensity are related to land accessibility and human population density. We applied a breakpoint-detection algorithm to Landsat time-series spanning three decades (1984-2015) and retrieved the temporal dynamics of shifting cultivation fields, which go through alternating phases of crop production (swidden) and secondary forest regrowth (fallow). We found that fallow-period length has decreased from 6.4 to 5.1 years on average, and that expansion over old-growth forest has slowed down over time. Shorter fallow periods and higher frequency of slash and burn cycles are practiced closer to residences and around larger villages. Our results indicate that shifting cultivation in riverine Amazonia has gone through a process of agricultural intensification in the past three decades. The resulting landscape is predominantly covered by young secondary forests (≤ 12 yrs old), and 20% of it have gone through intensive use. Reversing this trend and avoiding the negative consequences of agricultural intensification requires land use planning that accounts for the constraints of land use in riverine areas.

Concepts: Agriculture, Population density, Forest, Food security, Land use, Slash and burn, Secondary forest, Shifting cultivation


The massive forests of central Amazonia are often considered relatively resilient against climatic variation, but this view is challenged by the wildfires invoked by recent droughts. The impact of such fires that spread from pervasive sources of ignition may reveal where forests are less likely to persist in a drier future. Here we combine field observations with remotely sensed information for the whole Amazon to show that the annually inundated lowland forests that run through the heart of the system may be trapped relatively easily into a fire-dominated savanna state. This lower forest resilience on floodplains is suggested by patterns of tree cover distribution across the basin, and supported by our field and remote sensing studies showing that floodplain fires have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on forest structure as well as soil fertility. Although floodplains cover only 14% of the Amazon basin, their fires can have substantial cascading effects because forests and peatlands may release large amounts of carbon, and wildfires can spread to adjacent uplands. Floodplains are thus an Achilles' heel of the Amazon system when it comes to the risk of large-scale climate-driven transitions.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Amazon Rainforest, Slash and burn, Peruvian Amazon


Micronutrient deficiency remains a serious problem in Indonesia with approximately 100 million people, or 40% of the population, suffering from one or more micronutrient deficiencies. In rural areas with poor market access, forests and trees may provide an essential source of nutritious food. This is especially important to understand at a time when forests and other tree-based systems in Indonesia are being lost at unprecedented rates. We use food consumption data from the 2003 Indonesia Demographic Health Survey for children between the ages of one and five years and data on vegetation cover from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to examine whether there is a relationship between different tree-dominated land classes and consumption of micronutrient-rich foods across the archipelago. We run our models on the aggregate sample which includes over 3000 observations from 25 provinces across Indonesia as well as on sub-samples from different provinces chosen to represent the different land classes. The results show that different tree-dominated land classes were associated with the dietary quality of people living within them in the provinces where they were dominant. Areas of swidden/agroforestry, natural forest, timber and agricultural tree crop plantations were all associated with more frequent consumption of food groups rich in micronutrients in the areas where these were important land classes. The swidden/agroforestry land class was the landscape associated with more frequent consumption of the largest number of micronutrient rich food groups. Further research needs to be done to establish what the mechanisms are that underlie these associations. Swidden cultivation in is often viewed as a backward practice that is an impediment to food security in Indonesia and destructive of the environment. If further research corroborates that swidden farming actually results in better nutrition than the practices that replace it, Indonesian policy makers may need to reconsider their views on this land use.

Concepts: Agriculture, Nutrition, Food, Indonesia, Forest, Micronutrient, Slash and burn, Shifting cultivation


Traditional tropical agriculture often entails a form of slash-and-burn land management that may adversely affect ecosystem services such as pollination, which are required for successful crop yields. The Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico has a >4000 year history of traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, termed ‘milpa’. Hot ‘Habanero’ chilli is a major pollinator-dependent crop that nowadays is often grown in monoculture within the milpa system.We studied 37 local farmers' chilli fields (sites) to evaluate the effects of landscape composition on bee communities. At 11 of these sites, we undertook experimental pollination treatments to quantify the pollination of chilli. We further explored the relationships between landscape composition, bee communities and pollination service provision to chilli.Bee species richness, particularly species of the family Apidae, was positively related to the amount of forest cover. Species diversity decreased with increasing proportion of crop land surrounding each sampling site. Sweat bees of the genus Lasioglossum were the most abundant bee taxon in chilli fields and, in contrast to other bee species, increased in abundance with the proportion of fallow land, gardens and pastures which are an integral part of the milpa system.There was an average pollination shortfall of 21% for chilli across all sites; yet the shortfall was unrelated to the proportion of land covered by crops. Rather, chilli pollination was positively related to the abundance of Lasioglossum bees, probably an important pollinator of chilli, as well indirectly to the proportion of fallow land, gardens and pastures that promote Lasioglossum abundance. Synthesis and applications. Current, low-intensity traditional slash-and-burn (milpa) agriculture provides Lasioglossum spp. pollinators for successful chilli production; fallow land, gardens and pasture therefore need to be valued as important habitats for these and related ground-nesting bee species. However, the negative impact of agriculture on total bee species diversity highlights how agricultural intensification is likely to reduce pollination services to crops, including chilli. Indeed, natural forest cover is vital in tropical Yucatán to maintain a rich assemblage of bee species and the provision of pollination services for diverse crops and wild flowers.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Ecology, Pollination, Bee, Pollinator, Crops, Slash and burn


Many studies have examined how fuels, topography, climate, and fire weather influence fire severity. Less is known about how different forest management practices influence fire severity in multi-owner landscapes, despite costly and controversial suppression of wildfires that do not acknowledge ownership boundaries. In 2013, the Douglas Complex burned over 19,000 ha of Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) lands in Southwestern Oregon, USA. O&C lands are composed of a checkerboard of private industrial and federal forestland (Bureau of Land Management, BLM) with contrasting management objectives, providing a unique experimental landscape to understand how different management practices influence wildfire severity. Leveraging Landsat based estimates of fire severity (Relative differenced Normalized Burn Ratio, RdNBR) and geospatial data on fire progression, weather, topography, pre-fire forest conditions, and land ownership, we asked (1) what is the relative importance of different variables driving fire severity, and (2) is intensive plantation forestry associated with higher fire severity? Using Random Forest ensemble machine learning, we found daily fire weather was the most important predictor of fire severity, followed by stand age and ownership, followed by topographic features. Estimates of pre-fire forest biomass were not an important predictor of fire severity. Adjusting for all other predictor variables in a general least squares model incorporating spatial autocorrelation, mean predicted RdNBR was higher on private industrial forests (RdNBR 521.85 ± 18.67 [mean ± SE]) vs. BLM forests (398.87 ± 18.23) with a much greater proportion of older forests. Our findings suggest intensive plantation forestry characterized by young forests and spatially homogenized fuels, rather than pre-fire biomass, were significant drivers of wildfire severity. This has implications for perceptions of wildfire risk, shared fire management responsibilities, and developing fire resilience for multiple objectives in multi-owner landscapes.

Concepts: Forestry, Forest, Topography, Sustainable forest management, Landscape, Land, Slash and burn, Bureau of Land Management


Highly erratic rainfall patterns in northern Benin complicate the ability of rural farmers to engage in subsistence agriculture. This research explores gender-specific responses to climate variability in the context of agrarian Benin through a household survey (n = 260) and an experimental gaming exercise among a subset of the survey respondents. Although men and women from the sample population are equally aware of climate variability and share similar coping strategies, their specific land-use strategies, preferences, and motivations are distinct. Over the long term, these differences would likely lead to dissimilar coping strategies and vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Examination of gender-specific land-use responses to climate change and anticipatory learning can enhance efforts to improve adaptability and resilience among rural subsistence farmers.

Concepts: Agriculture, Climate, Weather, Climate change, Agricultural economics, Global warming, Slash and burn, Subsistence agriculture


Field studies in Amazonia have found a relationship at continental scales between soil fertility and broad trends in forest structure and function. Little is known at regional scales, however, about how discrete patterns in forest structure or functional attributes map onto underlying edaphic or geological patterns. We collected airborne LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data and VSWIR (Visible to Shortwave Infrared) imaging spectroscopy measurements over 600 km2 of northwestern Amazonian lowland forests. We also established 83 inventories of plant species composition and soil properties, distributed between two widespread geological formations. Using these data, we mapped forest structure and canopy reflectance, and compared them to patterns in plant species composition, soils, and underlying geology. We found that variations in soils and species composition explained up to 70% of variation in canopy height, and corresponded to profound changes in forest vertical profiles. We further found that soils and plant species composition explained more than 90% of the variation in canopy reflectance as measured by imaging spectroscopy, indicating edaphic and compositional control of canopy chemical properties. We last found that soils explained between 30% and 70% of the variation in gap frequency in these forests, depending on the height threshold used to define gaps. Our findings indicate that a relatively small number of edaphic and compositional variables, corresponding to underlying geology, may be responsible for variations in canopy structure and chemistry over large expanses of Amazonian forest.

Concepts: Chemistry, Soil, Ecosystem, Geology, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Slash and burn