Dr. Deborah Lawrence, Environmental Scientist

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Professor, Environmental Science
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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Since I first went to the rainforest of Borneo as an undergraduate, I have been trying to understand how human land use alters the functioning of the earth. I started out trying to understand how deforestation affects biodiversity in the forests that come back and whether the forests would ever look the way they did before humans cleared them. In particular, I wondered why rainforest recovers biodiversity quickly in some places and slowly, if at all, in other places. Investigating farmer’s plots along the rainforest margin, all the same age, I tested the hypothesis that prior disturbance history determines the recovery of a patch of forest. Indeed, the number of prior deforestation-cultivation-fallow regrowth cycles changes the face of the landscape and soil nutrient dynamics over time, altering the pool of tree species that arrives and thrives at a given patch of rainforest.

The focus has shifted to changes in soil nutrient dynamics as I have tried to understand the fundamental constraints on tropical forest recovery. That interest has spurred collaborative research into the role of water—normally abundant in rain forests, but even there, seasonally scarce, and often limited in tropical dry forests. Interactions between nutrient and water availability are even more important as the climate changes.

As consensus grew about climate change over the course of my career, I started thinking about my research differently. I realized that the effects of deforestation extend far beyond the fate of one farmer, or one patch of forest, or even one country. Deforestation across the tropics is a significant source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. I have always been concerned about whether we could find a way to use the rainforest without using it up—to sustainably manage the most magnificent forests on the earth. My concerns centered on farmer livelihoods, biodiversity, water and soil fertility. Now, I see rain forest conservation as a critical factor in maintaining a stable climate for humanity and all other species on the planet. The stakes have never been higher.

You cannot just add up the effects of deforestation in a giant spread sheet. You need an earth system model to really understand how a modification of the land surface alters global climate. I am excited to be working with global climate models to understand how land use decisions across the globe—to grow food, produce biofuels, or conserve natural areas including forests—alters climate, feeds back on ecosystems and ultimately affects human well-being. I am most excited about working with people from across the university to truly understand these impacts—we want to understand not only how many calories or water or energy or money will be available to people across the globe. We want to understand what it means to live in the kind of world that results from our land use decisions. We are asking big questions: what kind of world do we want to live in? If we find a world we want to live in, how can we make it happen? What makes people care about climate change enough to act?  More: Effects of Tropical Deforestation on Climate and Agriculture

Dr. Lawrence - TedXTake a look at my TEDTalk for another perspective on my life’s work, trying to understand how humans interact with the environment.


Visit my research website and learn more about climate change and rainforests.

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