Inspiring peopleGeertje van der Heijden

Examining tropical forests' response to climate change
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences
Geertje cropped

Previously an Anne McLaren Research Fellow, Dr Geertje van der Heijden is an ecologist based in the School of Geography.

“I’m interested in the influence of climate change on tropical forests and how they in turn influence climate change. My focus is on lianas, woody climbing plants. They use the trees to support their biomass to reach the canopy, but are detrimental to the trees they infest.

We’re asking how do lianas affect the carbon balance and carbon cycle of these forests. As growing trees take up carbon from the atmosphere and release carbon back when they die, tropical forests are important for the global carbon balance and cycle. Lianas may affect this as trees that are infested with lianas grow less and die sooner. Lianas are increasing, at least in the Neotropics, and we’re finding out if this something to worry about in terms of the global carbon balance and climate change.

I’m collaborating on a large-scale experimental removal study in Panama where we have removed all lianas from a certain area to compare with forest where lianas are still present to test this. But I am also using other more observational approaches to answer these questions. Further funding would allow us to extend the liana removal project to Malaysia and Costa Rica.

From being very little in the Netherlands, I always wanted to go to the tropical rainforest. I studied biology and wanted to do a project in the tropics – that was lianas in Guyana and I got hooked. The first time I walked into the rainforest and thought ‘Wow, I can die happy now’.

What drew me to Nottingham was the opportunity to do three years of independent research and then go into an academic position. Normally, if you start as a lecturer or assistant professor your teaching can put research on the back burner for a while. With my Anne McLaren Fellowship, I can set up my research programme first and teaching responsibilities follow later.

The other tropical researchers based here in the School of Geography, as well as in Life Sciences, were a big draw. I have always been interested in applying remote sensing techniques to my research and expertise here makes this possible and will broaden my research scope. We work with images from satellites, planes and also drones.

These images offer wider spectral responses and access to information on a bigger scale. It’s another means of collecting data – a different view on the world; I’m on the ground and they’re looking from above. It’s great to combine expertise: we’ve discovered a wealth of possibilities together.

I have to say that the University support is amazing. The Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) helps with grants and gives so much support. The biggest grant I’d had was the Anne McLaren Fellowship and I’m now writing grant bids for 10 times that amount!

The magic hasn’t worn off, especially if you get a chance to go to a whole new area. I’d never been to South East Asia before so to go to Malaysia last year, to see how the forest there differs from South America, was great. My plan is to extend my liana project over South East Asia, but one step at a time! Being at Nottingham in a way has opened-up a whole new continent for me.”

View Geertje's profile

Geertje is interested in how climate change affects the structure and functioning of tropical forests and the ability of tropical forests to store and sequester carbon.

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