School of GeoSciences

Global Change Ecology: Mathew Williams

Chair of Global Change Ecology


My research is on understanding the terrestrial carbon cycle and its links to global change. The carbon cycle links the biological processes of living things to the physical environment and climate. Carbon, through its links to natural resources such as food and wood, is fundamental to our society and its sustainability. I study carbon cycling of plants and soils, and their interactions, across environmental and biodiversity gradients from the tropics to the arctic, to understand carbon sinks and sources across the globe. I explore feedback processes between soil, vegetation and the atmosphere, over timescales from days to years, to improve modelling of climate change. I use process based modelling and data assimilation methods to extract information from detailed ecosystem measurements. Linking to earth observations, I use models to upscale field measurements and ecological experiments, to investigate landscape processes and predict their sensitivity to disturbance and climate. I focus particularly on issues relating to the drought sensitivity of forests, the role of disturbance (fire or anthropogenic) on forest biomass, the sensitivity of Arctic ecosystems to warming, and the yield of crops. Understanding and simulating the non-steady state behaviour of ecosystems is a current focal interest.


I am course organiser for 'Ecological Measurement', a 3rd year undegraduate field course based in the Scottish Highlands (Firbush field centre). I also organise the4th yr undergraduate course in 'Critical Thinking in Ecological and Environmental Sciences'.


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 projects

(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