• SENSE Research Cluster V: Ecosystem dynamics and adaptive capacity

    In the past few decades much research has gone into the responses of individual species to large-scale environmental changes such as global warming and related climate features (e.g. droughts, flooding), land use (including urbanization) and nitrogen deposition. There are now four main challenges ahead in order to improve our predictive power of the consequences of these environmental changes for ecosystem functions and services: (1) identifying and quantifying general response patterns of (functional or taxonomic) groups of organisms with their different functional traits; (2) incorporate contributions of species interactions as drivers of community composition and diversity; (3) quantify how changes in 1 and 2 feed back to vegetation and soil functions and services and atmospheric composition; (4) incorporate knowledge from 1-3 into large-scale dynamic vegetation, soil and climate models, with particular reference to the understanding of ecosystem ‘tipping points’ (thresholds).

    While this research field is characterized by a high scientific complexity, on the one hand, it continues to have a high societal relevance at the same time. Participants in this SENSE Research Cluster strive for scientific excellence, combined with clear societal communication.

    Featuring subjects, mechanisms and methods that are being developed and applied in this SENSE Research Cluster are, for example:

    • Analysis of interactions between land use patterns and biodiversity on different scales
    • Developing biodiversity labels to evaluate current and future land use
    • Developing integrated assessment tools to analyze pollution events
    • Developing and analyzing eco-engineering principles for riparian development
    • Using the functional trait concept and experimental screening of multiple species in order to detect and quantify common patterns in the response of species to environmental changes
    • The consequences of shifts in species composition for ecosystem functions and services (e.g. carbon storage, soil fertility, hydrological regulation, food supply, recreational value; resilience)
    • Modelling of (1) ecosystem consequences of extreme environmental disturbances; (2) the conditions for and consequences of tipping points of leading to regime shifts in ecosystem function and services; (3) incorporating functional trait information into dynamic global vegetation models that can be linked to climate models

    We welcome experts in this field to participate in this research cluster to exchange knowledge and stimulate new innovative developments (if you are not a member of the SENSE Research School but involved with this subject, then you are still welcome to enroll and participate in this research cluster).

    To read more about the SENSE research clusters in general, click HERE.

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    To illustrate the urgency and relevance of new developments in this field, below we present some of the emerging research questions that are currently challenging both science and society in the research domain of SENSE Research Cluster V:

    1. What are the consequences of biofuel production for biodiversity at field, landscape and regional levels?
      Scientific and societal relevance: First generation biofuel production from primary production or second generation biofuel production from waste materials is expected to increase. Both production methods will have effects direct and indirect effects on the biodiversity; a direct effect is that species associated with the biofuel crop will change. Other effects are due to changes in land use types and land use intensity which change ecological networks; indirect effects may include such aspects as changes in soil carbon content, effects on hydrology, and changes in waste products to which biodiversity has to adapt.

    2. Which are the indicators for conditions that would support nature/biodiversity conservation and ecosystem functioning that could be used in sustainability criteria for urban and rural planning?
      Scientific and societal relevance: To find the right biodiversity indicators that would enable preservation of ecosystem functioning in urban and rural landscapes. Core questions are: What ecosystems and what species are the best indicators? What are the thresholds for irreversible changes in ecosystems? What dynamics govern the possibilities of ecosystems to provide services in urban and rural areas?

    3. What are optimal solutions for pollution problems such as global warming, acidification, and eutrophication, given the many interrelations between the causes of these problems, and the underlying biological, chemical and physical processes?
      Scientific and societal relevance: Environmental pollution problems are caused by a wide variety of human activities. Energy use, agricultural production, industry, and transportation are among the most important causes. The associated emissions of pollutants affect a number of natural processes, resulting in a range of environmental impacts. These processes are interrelated. As a result, policy measures meant to reduce one pollutant, may have (intended or unintended) side-effects on other pollutants. The issue is further complicated by transboundary transport of pollutants. Due to this complexity, it is not easy to identify optimal strategies to reduce pollution problems simultaneously. There is a need for new methods that assess major pollution problems simultaneously.

    4. What have been the consequences of past and present riparian engineering works, such as weirs, culverts, gravel removal, habitat fragmentation and damming, on biodiversity within and alongside rivers?
      Scientific and societal relevance: Understanding consequences of riparian engineering requires hydrologists and civil engineers who understand environmental conditions required for species such as fish and amphibians. It also requires knowledge of chemical and physical changes in the environment caused by these works. Actively using this knowledge (eco-engineering) to modify environmental conditions allows us to modify and manage biodiversity.

    5. If global warming emissions cannot effectively be reduced, can Earth Systems Engineering & Management prevent climate runaway? How can carbon fluxes and sequestration be managed, and what is the role of vegetation resulting from human activities? Earth system scenarios, evaluated from a sustainable point of view, may lead to reversal in current policies?
      Scientific and social relevance: The shifts to earth system management advocated now also in the Netherlands may or may not be realistic, and if realistic may be attractive or not. Comparative analysis of this field relative to reduction and mitigation options may help create relevant perspectives for research and policy. A focus on the possibilities of deliberate changes in vegetation may be worthwhile.

    6. Can we foresee critical transitions in coupled climate-ecosystem combinations at multiple spatial and temporal scales?
      Scientific and social relevance: The integrity of ecosystems, and thereby the services they provide to people and their economies, may collapse either (1) if the steady accumulation of small (anthropogenic) changes pushes ecosystems over their ‘tipping point’ or (2) if they are subjected to extreme climatic events (e.g. floods, extreme drought, large-scale fires) as a consequence of global warming or extreme human disturbances. We need a better risk assessment of such collapses at different spatial scales (e.g. as dependent on ecosystem, landscape or regional geomorphological features) and at different time scales (decades to centuries).

    7. Which species, or which organismal traits, are likely to be the best indicators of the effects of climate change on natural communities?
      Scientific and social relevance: Certain species possess traits by which they are particularly sensitive to specific environmental changes and their performance can thereby serve as ‘bellweathers’ (early warning signals) of more drastic community or ecosystem change. Equally important, we need to identify and quantify for those species likely to benefit from these changes (e.g. invaders), how they differ from the current species in a particular community in their ‘effect traits’, i.e. those characteristics by which they can alter soil or ecosystem functioning. Examples are species that produce toxic litter inhibiting other organisms, species that are particularly flammable (through litter retention, resins, etc.) or nitrogen-fixing species that can serve as natural ‘fertilizers’.

    8. With what precision can we predict the ecological impact of different policy options and the ecological effects of management action?
      Scientific and social relevance: It is likely that a combination of approaches will do a better job than the sum of the individual research methods, since each has its own strengths but also its limitations or artefacts. For instance, a combination of (1) field manipulation experiments, (2) observations along natural climatic or other environmental gradients and (3) modeling will provide more precise and reliable predictive power of the consequences of nitrogen emissions and deposition regimes.

    9. How can the main ecological structure (EHS) in the Netherlands, as part of the European protected area system, be changed in such a way that biodiversity has a chance to adapt to climate change?
      Scientific and social relevance: How can the main ecological structure (EHS) in the Netherlands be adapted to climate change? What role can changes in spatial patterns (e.g. changes in size and spatial arrangements) play? How does this fit with European initiatives to make nature protected areas climate proof? What specific role can forestry play? One specific ‘hot item’ is the role of green ‘corridors’ (including for instance ecoducts across motorways) connecting areas of high biodiversity (e.g. nature reserves) and thereby improving genetic exchange within and between populations. High genetic diversity tends to make populations more resistant to environmental changes.

    10. Facilitation of non-native invasive species through climate change and 'invasional meltdown'
      Scientific and social relevance: What could be conditions for an 'invasional meltdown' (when the invasion of a non-native species clears the path for the next and so on). How to develop early-warning indicators? What are effective control strategies?

    11. How can knowledge of nonlinear changes in ecosystems, predictability of thresholds, and structural and dynamic characteristics of systems that lead to threshold and irreversible changes be improved?
      Scientific and social relevance: It is important to analyse nonlinear changes in ecosystems. Where thresholds or tipping points are present, irreversible changes may occur. We must improve our prediction of thresholds, as part of the structural and dynamic characteristics of ecosystems, in order to prevent ecosystem collapse.
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      Coordinators and experts


      • Vacant

      SENSE key experts:

      • Prof. Marten Scheffer (WU-AEW)
      • Prof. Frank Berendse (WU-NCP)
      • Prof. Rik Leemans (WU-ESA)
      • Prof Rien Aarts (VU-IES-SE)
      • Prof Martin Wassen (UU-COP)
      • Dr. Matty Berg (VU-IES-AE)
      • Prof. Geert de Snoo (LU-CML)
      • Prof. Jef Huisman (UvA-IBED-AMB)
      • Prof A.J. (Jan) Hendriks (RU Nijmegen)
      • Prof. K. Irvine (UNESCO-IHE)
      • Prof. dr. A.K. (Andrew) Skidmore (UT-ITC)
      • Prof. Rien Aerts (VU-IES-SE)
      • Prof. Jacintha Ellers (VU-IES-AE)
      • Prof. Karsten Kalbitz (UvA-IBED-ESS)

      Contact information:

      For more information about this research cluster, please contact Dr. Monique Gulickx (

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        Here you will be able to find interesting articles, links to books that are worth reading, presentations that caught your attention, etc. To suggest items that should be placed here, please follow the instructions mentioned below or send an email to the (technical) coordinators.

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          Add a document to the Library

          Do you have any interesting articles, reports or other documents that you want to share within this research cluster? You can add the by clicking on Upload Documents below. Please note that your document will not be visible in the library immediately, because it first has to be approved by the coordinator. You can also contact him if you would like your suggested document to be brought under our attention in a different way or if you would like the document to appear differently in the library (there are some options available for that).

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            Discussion forum

            In this forum topics related to cluster I can be discussed, varying from scientific issues to organizational matters. The forum is very easy to use.

            To enter the forum, click on Forum RC V below. You will go to the overview page of the forum, where you can see all existing discussions. If you click on a discussion title, you will enter the discussion. You can read all posts and you can also respond to them, by clicking Reply.

            To add a new discussion topic, you can click on Add a new discussion topic on top of the overview page. Please make sure that your new discussion is really new and does not overlap with existing discussions, otherwise the forum will get messy.

            The forum is maintained by the technical coordinator of the research cluster, who will remove any inappropriate contributions to the discussions.

            Please note the following!

            Everyone who enrolls in this course, is automatically subscribed to this forum and will receive e-mail notifications of every post on the forum. If you do not wish to be subscribed to the forum, you can click Unsubscribe from this forum in the top right corner of the forum overview page.

            If you do not want to receive too many notifications, you can adapt the forum settings for your account. To do so, follow these steps:
            a. Click on your username, which is always visible in blue in the bottom left corner of the page. You will go to your personal profile.
            b. Click Edit profile.
            c. Click Show advanced.
            d. In the field E-mail digest type you can now choose one of the three options: standard - notification of every post; daily an e-mail of all posts in full text; daily one e-mail with the titles of all posts. If there are no posts at all, you won’t get a summary e-mail either.
            e. You can also adapt other settings if you like.
            f. Scroll down and choose Update profile to activate your new settings.

            If you want to give feedback on the functioning of the forum or group page in general, then you are most welcome to leave a post in the discussion Technical feedback. The SENSE team will keep an eye on this discussion and will try to process your feedback as good as possible.