Spatial Patterns of Nutrient Limitation and Carbon Storage in South African Coastal Lowland Landscapes

Geographically, Africa is one of the weakest links in the understanding of land-atmosphere carbon exchange.   The objectives of this research are to (1) employ a novel experimental design to determine how variation in nutrient availability determines spatial patterns in grassland carbon productivity and (2) provide the first-ever quantification of carbon storage in coastal and dune forests within two priority nature reserves in the southeastern coast of South Africa.  Contrasting fire and vegetation patterns within each reserve will allow for the development of new pyrogeographic perspectives on African carbon storage at landscape scales.  By studying carbon storage in priority conservation areas in coastal South Africa, this research will establish a deeper understanding of the role of African landscapes in conservation management and global ecosystem science.

A current lack of understanding of complex interactions among fire, climate, and nutrient cycling hinders broad-scale modeling of ecosystem response to climate change.  This issue is particularly acute for Africa, which represents the largest source of fire-derived carbon emissions and for which carbon storage estimates are scarce. Direct measurement of carbon storage in new locations and identification of its limiting factors across multiple scales, as explored in this project, is critical for the development of future diagnostic modeling efforts. Understanding how fire and soil nutrients govern these patterns will contribute to landscape and conservation management in the region and globally.

This research is run in parallel with the Parks and People Wild Coast Program and the Parks and People undergraduate Education Abroad program.

PI:  Erica Smithwick (Geography):  smithwick@psu.edu  —  http://www.geog.psu.edu/people/smithwick-erica

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