School of GeoSciences

Global Change Ecology: Mathew Williams

Chair of Global Change Ecology

PhD studentships available

Global change effects on boreal forests: how will boreal ecosystems respond to climate warming? This project will test whether boreal latitudes are undergoing tipping point transitions that restructure ecosystems due to warming and feedbacks between nutrient cycling and vegetation.

Tropical flooded forests: their role in the dynamics of the Amazon biome This project will determine patterns of carbon cycling across the Amazon basin with a particular focus on comparing wetland forests, that cover >1 million square kilometres, with the better studied terra firme forests. The project will link field data to satellite observations and process modelling.

Deadline for applications is Thursday 11 January 2018, 12pm. To apply for a project, follow the application procedure described on the How to apply page.


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 state and future of tropical rain forests. I have three projects linked to this topic, including UK Space Agency funded Forests 2020; Newton Funded Brazil-CSSP with the UK Met Office, and NERC funded BALI project. Forests 2020 works with 6 tropical countries to map opportunities and risks for their rain forests. Brazil-CSSP works with Brazilian researchers to advance our capacity to model the carbon balance of the Amazon. The BALI project, part of the NERC Human Modified Topical Forests programme, studies tropical moist forest ecology, and its response to climate change and human disturbance in Borneo.

(2). Sustainable global agriculture. I have two projects on this topic. The ATEC project is funded by NERC and BBSRC to develop advanced technologies for efficient crop production in the UK. We use drones and satellites to monitor crop states and diagnose the limits on crop yield. A Royal Society grant is developing our capacity to model tropical crops.

(3) Combining models and observations to analyse terrestrial ecosystems. I am part of the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation, researching model-data fusion methods for terrestrial ecological science. We have developed algorithms to calibrate simple models of carbon and water cycling using satellite data, and we use these to diagnose the global terrestrial carbon cycle. We also analyse global forests to determine their potential to store biomass, and therefore to estimate their current biomass deficit. I also am Director of the NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility, supporting UK scientists to measure surface reflectance and atmospheric absorption.

(4) Monitoring forests from space. I am a 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 as Earth Explorer 7, with an expected launch in 2021. You can see our presentation here: Earth Explorer 7 User Consultation Meeting. Our Biomass presentation begins at 39 minutes in.

(5) The response of the terrestrial Arctic and Boreal regions to changes in climate. Our current research is on ecological protection of permafrost, and climate sensitivity of carbon cycling. I led a NERC Arctic Research Programme project CYCLOPS (2012-6), studying carbon cycling linkages of permafrost systems. I led the ABACU consortium, 2006-10, a NERC-funded project dedicated to research on Arctic Biosphere-Atmosphere Coupling at multiple Scales, part of International Polar Year.


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.

For information on the REFLEX project on model-data fusion methods, click here.



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