The temperate rainforests of Dartmoor

Last week, Dr Debbie Hemming, Scientific Manager of the Met Office Vegetation-Climate Interactions (VCI) group, took part in filming and podcast recording for the Sky Climate Show on the subject of temperate rainforests. Here, Debbie explains why she is so interested in temperate rainforests and why they are an area of scientific research.  

It might sound strange, but contrary to belief we do have rainforests here in the UK. Indeed, you don’t have to travel far from our Exeter HQ to find them. Nestled in isolated pockets along the moisture-laden west coasts of the UK and Ireland are fragments of lush ancient woodland that belong to the ecological group known as Coastal Temperate Rainforest.

Although these habitats occur in other locations around the world, they are limited to small, isolated pockets and are therefore considered rare and threatened by changes in climate, land use and associated impacts, such as wildfires or pests and diseases.

I was recently approached by Tom Heap from the Sky Climate Show who was interested to learn more about these fascinating ecosystems, why they are important and how they might be at risk from climate change.

We met at a spot almost right in the middle of Dartmoor on a suitably wet and windy morning and walked a short distance to find one of these magical locations.

Dr Debbie Hemming being interviewed by Tom Heap for the Sky Climate Show. Image: Met Office

Temperate rainforests are fascinating, diverse ecosystems. In the UK, they occur in isolated areas with at least 1,500mm of rainfall each year, although in Scotland this can be over 4,000 mm per year which is more than in many tropical rainforests. The ecosystems are characterised by oak trees, often stunted and contorted by the extreme conditions, interspersed with hazel, birch, rowan, ash and holly trees.

Covering everything in sight are vibrant green mosses and diverse lichen, which further support a community of ferns and other epiphytes. Various species of small animals, birds and insects are attracted to the benefits that these habitats provide.  The abundance of mosses and lichen also indicate a requirement for clean air.

As well as being a landscape that can benefit wellbeing, temperate rainforest ecosystems provide us other services. By supporting flora and fauna that wouldn’t otherwise survive in these areas they increase the biodiversity of the region and provide a carbon sink that would not otherwise exist. They also play a role in flood control by slowing the transport of intense rainfall to the rivers.

However, with our changing climate and continued pressure on land use, the risks to temperate rainforests are likely to increase. We expect to see more weather and climate extremes as a consequence of our warming climate. Further hot, dry spells could threaten these habitats as they rely on high levels of rainfall and humidity to function. Increases in wildfires could also pose a risk to the small patches of land occupied by temperate rainforests.

It’s therefore important for scientists to understand the changes that climate extremes and trends are likely to have on temperate rainforests, and indeed other habitats around the world, in order to provide scientific advice to support their sustainable management into the future.

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