Newly Discovered 1930s Congo Notebooks Could Help Us Understand How Trees Respond To Climate Change

The Congo forest is the world's second largest rainforest after the Amazon. edantoine/Shutterstock 

Rachel Baxter 25 Sep 2017, 16:56

After the Amazon, the Congo forest is the second biggest rainforest in the world. But it’s drying out due to climate change, and scientists are unsure what effects this might have. Now, newly discovered logbooks dating back to the 1930s are answering some of their questions.

Biologist Koen Hufkens, from Ghent University in Belgium, stumbled upon the old notebooks, which contain useful tree growth data, in an old building at the Yangambi Biological Station in the Congo forest. They contain weekly recordings of 2,000 trees made between 1937 and 1958, and provide information on flowering times, fruiting, and leaf fall.

Jungles like the Congo forest are essential in the fight against climate change. Trees and plants take in a huge amount of the carbon dioxide we produce, much of which is thought to be stored in tropical tree trunks. Therefore, we need to know how these trees will react to environmental changes like decreased rainfall.

However, due to a mix of civil war, unstable governments, and poor infrastructure, research into how the Congo forest will react to change has been limited. As the forest begins to dries out, finding out how its vegetation will react is a key priority.

Hufkens originally headed to the Congo with the view of setting up a carbon flux tower in the Congo basin. This is a tool used to assess how trees and plants react to climate change. However, the project ran out of money, so Hufkens searched for other ways to monitor the forest. That’s when he discovered the notebooks.

Water-damaged and nibbled on by rodents, the books were rescued from a decaying herbarium just in time. There was just one problem. Digitizing and statistically analyzing their contents would have taken Hufkens a year, and he didn’t have time.

So, he turned to citizen science website Zooniverse for help. Through the site, Hufkens managed to enlist 8,000 volunteers, each working for about 90 seconds per visit. Hufkens split up the data in the books into individual photos containing a year’s information from just one tree.

The anonymous volunteers managed to complete the same amount of work in a year that one person would have taken three years to achieve. Each image was processed 10 times by 10 volunteers. Hufkens is now looking at the data in relation to Yangambi’s weather records.

Excitingly, the European Union has now given a grant to finally build a flux tower at Yangambi, although it will take a long time for it to record sufficient data. Luckily for Hufkens, his online helpers have taken him one step closer to understanding how the Congo forest will react to climate change.  

[H/T: The Guardian]

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