“Winterland” or predicting the future of tropical forests

This morning, we had the pleasure of visiting Klaus Winter and his « Tropical Dome Project » facilities, here in Gamboa.

The project aims to answer to major questions in the context of tropical plant ecology and of the important climatic changes we face now:

  • How does tropical vegetation cope with climate change?
  • How extreme does climate change need to get before tropical vegetation becomes severely harmed?

The domes in “Winterland”. Photo by Anne-Sophie Caron

In order to answer those questions, researchers use solar geodisk domes in which they can control temperature and CO2 levels in order to simulate climatic events, harvest leaves, stems and roots and record measurements on tropical trees, shrubs, vines and herbs. This system allows them to record carbon sequestration, temperature and drought tolerance, … Also, since the system is relatively complete, belowground responses can also be investigated, which is especially important since it can have major effects on the tree composition, which can in turn affect the ecosystem’s carbon storage capacity (Cernusak et al., 2013).

This project is innovating as it makes a link between modelling studies (which often use measurements taken in natural forests to infer on their response to potential future climatic events) and monitoring (which, unfortunately, takes time before we can understand the processes we observe). It allows use to test hypothesis, while also seeing how the plants react in real time.

While there are some limitations to this system (they often can only study seedlings and samplings until they get too big for the domes), the information they provide is still very important to provide a basis for decision makers to plan for conservation plans, especially in a region where the changes are likely to be seen and felt relatively quick.

This project is especially interesting to me since, even though I am a community ecologist and an entomologist, I want to make plant ecology an important part of my thesis. I will be working in the Sardinilla plantation, which is part of the TreeDivNet, a global network of tree diversity experiments investigating tree species diversity and ecosystem functioning around the world. I am trying to understand the relationship between herbivorous beetle communities, tree diversity and ecosystem functioning, trying to be as integrative as I can. I deeply believe that you cannot do ecology without taking into account the importance of the trees in the ecosystems and their interactions with other organisms. In the context of climate change, we cannot assume that insects, while highly adaptive, will not be affected by the changes in plant diversity and/or function. Ecosystems are highly connected and plants are the basis of this connection, in my humble opinion.


The Sardinilla Plantation in 2005. Photo by Yvonne Oelmann



Cernusak LA, Winter K, Dalling JW, Holtum JAM, Jaramillo C, Körner C, Leakey ADB, Norby RJ, Poulter B, Turner BL, Wright SJ (2013) Tropical forest responses to increasing atmospheric CO2: current knowledge and opportunities for future research. Functional Plant Biology 40: 531-551

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