School of GeoSciences

Global Change Ecology: Mathew Williams

Chair of Global Change Ecology


Research: My research is on quantifying and understanding the terrestrial carbon cycle and its links to global change. I study the interactions of plant and soil processes across environmental and biodiversity gradients from the tropics to the Arctic. I use process based modelling and data assimilation methods to extract information from detailed ecosystem measurements on feedback processes between soil, vegetation and the atmosphere, over timescales from days to years. Linking to remote sensing data, I use models to upscale process information to investigate landscape processes. I focus particularly on issues relating to the drought sensitivity of forests, the role of disturbance (fire or anthropogenic) on forest biomass, and the sensitivity of Arctic ecosystems to warming. Understanding and simulating the non-steady state behaviour of ecosystems is a current focal interest.

Teaching: I am course organiser for Ecological Measurement, a 3rd year undegraduate field course based in the Scottish Highlands. I also teach on the MSc course Ecosystem Function and Dynamics.

I was a visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, from August 2012 - June 2013.

In 2014 I received a Royal Society-Wolfson Merit Award, to support my research into "Tracing sources and sinks in the terrestrial carbon cycle under global change".

You can watch my inaugural lecture, April 2012, entitled "Seeing the forest for the trees, a journey from Plant to Planet" here.

You can listen to a podcast by myself and Shaun Quegan, from NERC's Planet Earth, entitled "Space Mission to measure biomass" here.

Current and recent activities

(1) The response of the terrestrial Arctic to changes in climate. I lead a NERC Arctic Research Programme project CYCLOPS (2012-6), studying carbon cycling linkages of permafrost systems. I am joint PI on a NERC project (2010-12) modelling the response of the Arctic to changing climate. I led the ABACUS consortium, 2006-10. ABACUS was a NERC-funded project dedicated to research on Arctic Biosphere-Atmosphere Coupling at multiple Scales, part of International Polar Year.

(2) The biogenic greenhouse gas balance of the UK Greenhouse Gas Programme. I lead the NERC Greenhouse Gas Programme consortium GREENHOUSE. Over the period 2013-7, we will measure exchanges of CO2, CH4 and N2O at multiple scales over croplands, grassland and managed forests. We will use these data to improve land surface model representation of gas exchange in managed ecosystems.

(3) Developing methods to test and improve models of ecosystem processes. I organised Carbon Fusion, an international network funded by NERC and focussed on using data assimilation approaches to improve understanding of the terrestrial carbon cycle; I am biogeochemistry theme leader for JULES and member of the JULES Science Management committee. I am part of Edinburgh Plant Sciences, a research collaboration that investigates plants from genes to biomes.

(4) Principal investigator with the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation, leading the research strand on data assimilation in the carbon theme. We are currently working with European partners on the FLUXCOM experiment, to determine global C fluxes from the eddy flux network and satellite observations.

(5) Member of European Space Agency BIOMASS Mission Advisory Group. We prepared the BIOMASS: report for mission selection, and presented our case to ESA in Graz, Austria, in March 2013. BIOMASS has been recommended for selection, with an expected launch in 2019. You can see our presentation here: Earth Explorer 7 User Consultation Meeting. Our BIOMASS presentation begins at 39 minutes in.

(6) Research on tropical moist forest ecology, and its response to climate change and human disturbance. Current work is funded under the BALI project, part of the NERC Human Modified Topical Forests programme, and based on Borneo. Our role is to use process modelling to understand the effect of biodiversity change on ecosystem function.


For those interested in the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere (SPA) model, follow the link on the left to find details on the model, including access to the model handbook and various spreadsheets to assist model calibration and interpretation.

There is also a link to the Aggregated Canopy Model (ACM) - a simplified version of the SPA model, designed to predict daily ecosystem gross primary production given a simple set of driving variables. It is particularly useful for temporal and spatial extrapolation.

For information on the DALEC (data assimilation linked ecosystem carbon) model, see the link to the left.



School of GeoSciences
Global Change Research Institute
Crew Building, Kings Buildings
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, EH9 3JN, UK
Tel: + 44 (0) 131 650 7776