East-ward bound

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The Japanese garden in Vilvoorde, Belgium, symbolising eastward connections

As you can see in my previous post, where you can find an insightful map of my current global scientific network, my global network has only a limited connection with the east. While strong ties exist within Europe and across the ocean to both the Americas, getting to know – and collaborate with – colleagues in Asia has till now been more of a challenge.

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Japanese cherry

Yet the future of our Eastern ‘trade route’ has recently been getting brighter. We met some great Asian colleagues, passoniate about the same topics. Collaborations are now being forged. These new collaborations now already add new, fresh insights to our way of thinking, while at the same time allowing me to dive deeper into the fascinating ecosystems in the east.

Definitely worth the effort!

 

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Global network

For a scientist to be successful, a global network is crucial. International collaborations bring in new insights, different views on science and important sources of data and knowledge. These ideas are even more relevant in the discipline of ecology, where many of the asked questions need globally relevant answers. You can just never fully grasps the interactions of living things with each other and the environment without searching for the similarities ànd differences in these interactions all over the world.

In my research, this global aspect has always been a main goal and now, after 6 published papers and 1.5 years before the end of my PhD, it is a nice moment to make up the balance. I thus made a map combining the places I have visited myself (dots) and all people that I collaborated with on these 6 papers (lines).

Global networkLines are weighed based on the amount of papers together (bolder lines means more interactions), black lines indicate anticipated future collaborations. The red dot is home (Antwerp, Belgium), green dots stand for past visits, yellow dots for anticipated visits.

While the network starts to look like a spider, I am pretty curious to see how this will end up looking 1.5 years for now, at the end of this adventure and – if all goes as hoped for – throughout the rest of my scientific career. Also, if you’re a young (or older scientist) reading this and are triggered by the concept, feel free to share your own global network, we could learn a lot here about the ongoing globalisation of science!

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Quick, quick…

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… don’t hesitate! Work hard, grow, flower, do your business and make sure you finish it! Before it is too late…

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For many early spring flowers, that is what life is all about. Especially those living it in the forest understory. They have to profit from the first warm sunshine of spring before the trees start growing their leaves and the forest floor gets covered in shadows again.

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It is only a tiny time window they have, between the last bitter frosts and the true onset of spring. That is why they have to rely on reserves, which they saved from the previous year in storage parts below ground. It gives their short lives an impressive aura of dedication: they have everything ready for a flashing quick start, which happens as soon as weather starts improving. Then they use these reserves to grow, mature, create flowers and make sure their posterity is insured. And then, it is time for refilling the energy savings in the belowground parts, and quickly back to bed again, before the rest of the world slowly managed to get up.

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A remarkable strategy, and the perfect example of an ecological concept called the temporal niche: species sharing the same space, yet living in different moments of time, as such reducing their competition and living together in harmony.

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What to eat?

Awareness is raising rapidly in our environment that what we eat affects our environment in undeniable ways. We (should) all know by now that eating too much meat has a massive influence, not only concerning animal welfare, yet most notoriously on the whole environment. Food production costs lots of energy and space, and the carbon footprint of many of our common food sources is unsustainable.

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Yet, as often is the case, the story is not as easy as its most straightforward depiction, which in short sounds as follows: cut the meat out of your diet, turn vegetarian or even vegan, and you’ll be a blessing for our environment.

Yes, there is no denying that meat production is in general worse than the production of veggies: you have to give plants to your meat, so you can cut out a whole bunch of steps by just eating those plants yourself.

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More than 90% of corn production in Belgium is aimed for meat production

Yet there are many other important factors at play that can define the size of the carbon footprint of your food, or in general its influence on the world: food needs to be harvested, transported, packed, cooled, stored, sold and transported again to your own house… It needs space to grow, it needs people to handle it, it needs all kind of things all through the production process. In every step, there is countless options that are better or worse for the environment, and all together they can give an unexpected outcome to any comparison.

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For exotic food, you need to take a lot of traveling into account when calculating its impact on the environment.

You better buy food from close to home than from elsewhere, but only in the correct season, when it does not need special storage or growing circumstances to make it to you. Fresh fruit from Italy might have a smaller carbon footprint in spring than getting the same fruits out of  a Belgian storage in that season. Bananas transported by the millions with a boat from South-America might also be a smarter option than fruits flew in by plane from countries less far away. And vegetables from a heated greenhouse have a higher impact than those produced in open soil.

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Heating a greenhouse in winter, it might give you ‘local’ crops, but they are definitely carrying a large carbon footprint with them.

And then there is a bunch of other considerations that come into play, making the story even more complicated: animal welfare in food production, for example, often demands more space and resources than the more efficient yet less human mass production, and thus results in a higher carbon footprint. Or the local pork meat that is not bought by a vegetarian might in return be exported to other more recently developing countries, where meat consumption is on the rise, as such increasing its footprint.

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Free-roaming cattle might be healthier and happier, it also puts more pressure on the planet on an individual-base.

Eating beans is on average thus way better than eating beef, eating local most likely trumps importing from other continents. Yet there is one factor that beats all the others in this story, and that’s how many children you have. Staying childless is what reduces your carbon footprint the most, and no other measure is  ever going to compensate for that. Yet this doesn’t mean that we should altogether ban the blessings of a happy family, nor that we shouldn’t try to reduce our meat consumption or kilometers in a Hummer. What it does mean, is that being a living human is inevitably going to take its toll and that we should not aim for the complete absence of human influence on the planet. No, our true aim should be to try our best, do what we can, take the world into account in our decisions, yet still aim most and for all for a happy live.

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Note that this post is thus not calling for cynicism nor passive ignoring of what is going on on our planet. On the contrary! It wants to highlight the ever-present need for nuance in every big debate, where the absolute truth is rarely visible. It wants to inform people, trigger them to search for information and explore every side of the coin. So please, if reducing your climate impact is your main priority, aim for careful and well-informed decision-making, and stay motivated.

The Washington Post recently posted a very insightful story nuancing this debate as well. Worth checking it out!

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Editor’s Choice

Our paper on how plants travel along mountain roads got listed as the editor’s choice in Ecography this month!

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Good news and a nice acknowledgement of the relevance of the story, and it also implies that the paper is available now for everybody free of charge.

You can find him here.

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Interact

I have some awesome news for this summer! With the help from INTERACT, the European program supporting research in the Arctic, we just made this summers’ research project s in Lapland official.

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Lapporten, the gate to Lapland, opens to us once again this summer.

INTERACT has a trans-national access program, which creates opportunities for researchers throughout Europe to work in the field in often harsh and remote locations that are difficult to access. This program has been a blessing and great help for many scientists searching to understand nature in the Arctic, just at the moment it is undergoing these truly dramatic changes in these modern times.

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This program will support our different projects this summer to understand the effects of climate change and human disturbance on plant species, and how they deal (or don’t deal) with these stressors. A question from vital importance for the future of the unique nature in the high north, and for mountains all over the world.

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This story will most certainly be continued!

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Nature disturbs

A few posts ago, I talked about how humans disturb nature. I might have made it look like disturbance is a typical human thing, and mostly bad for nature. Yet nothing is further from the truth.

Disturbance is extremely natural, and even vital for biodiversity. It has been around for as long as the earth.

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Disturbance is a vital part of the circle of life, and one of the main gears that keep it going.

A few days ago, for example, a minor storm passed over Belgium. Nothing bad, nothing out of the ordinary, yet there was some decent damage. A few old trees fell down, a few branches got ripped off. Minor damage, but this kind of damage might play a big role in driving diversity.

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A minor storm, force 6, ripped off branches and threw over some old trees

There is an interesting correlation between diversity and levels of disturbance: an undisturbed system is in climax, a few species will overshadow everything, those with the highest competitive power will be dominant. They won’t leave much room for other species underneath them. Like an old beech forest, for example, with virtually nothing growing on the forest floor.

Yet a few minor disturbance events like this little storm can create an interesting dynamic. A few small gaps, light penetrating through the canopy, opportunities for species in the understory. These opportunities help diversity to improve.

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Yet if disturbance starts to get too intense, or these disturbing events start to follow each other too fast in time, opportunities become reduced again. Before you know it, before you have time to grow to full maturity, you get struck by a new disturbing event, and die again. Only those that can handle these extreme stress-levels will be able to thrive. Diversity inevitably goes down again.

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It is thus at intermediate disturbance levels that diversity is at its highest. It has been like that forever, and there is nothing unusual about it. Yet there is indeed something out of the ordinary to these anthropogenic disturbances: they change the disturbance regime, and thus the system to which nature has been adjusting.

And the results of that are highly unpredictable.

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