A Virtual Rainforest for Understanding the Stability, Resilience and Sustainability of Complex Ecosystems

NOMIS Research Project

Tropical rainforests are ecosystems that are geographically restricted, but which strongly influence global biodiversity, global carbon budgets and global livelihoods. To retain this importance, it is essential that rainforest ecosystems are stable, resilient and sustainable. This means they shouldn’t fluctuate much through time, they should rapidly recover from environmental shocks, and they should produce ecosystem services at a steady, reliable rate. Stability, resilience and sustainability are all emergent features of an ecosystem, and they arise through the combined metabolism of millions of interacting individual plants, animals and microbes. Identifying exactly how rainforests translate individual metabolic processes into ecosystem services, and whether they can be relied upon to continue doing so in a changing world, are pressing ecological questions for which no current method is able to provide answers. Rather than focusing on individual components, we need to acknowledge that rainforests are complex systems and that a systems approach will be needed to understand them.

To answer some of these fundamental questions, our project, A Virtual Rainforest for Understanding the Stability, Resilience and Sustainability of Complex Ecosystems, will construct a virtual rainforest: a general ecosystem model replicating all physical and biotic components of a rainforest. It will track the birth, growth, reproduction and death of every individual plant, animal and soil microbe that together make up a rainforest. It will have four modules: (1) the physical, or abiotic, environment in which the rainforest is embedded; (2) plants, which harness sunlight to provide the food and energy that powers the rest of the ecosystem; (3) animals, the mobile components that distribute nutrients and energy; and (4) soil microbes, responsible for decomposing waste products and recycling nutrients. The virtual rainforest will be the first attempt to bring all four modules together into a single simulation, with the modules connected through the movement of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water and energy.

We will conduct virtual experiments inside the virtual rainforest to address ecological questions that cannot be addressed through empirical observations. The project will go on to use the virtual rainforest to explore management scenarios to address real-world applied problems, such as how to optimize the ecological recovery of degraded tropical forests. The Virtual Rainforest project is being led by Robert Ewers, professor of ecology at Imperial College London (UK).