News Story

May 25, 2010

Faculty Profile: Paul Moorcroft

Growing up about ten miles from Manchester, England, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Paul Moorcroft spent a good deal of time outdoors, his back fence opening to fields which led to a national park. "My two favorite subjects when I was in high school were biology and mathematics, and certainly my research has ended up combining those fields.”

The introduction of mathematics into his ecological research began as a graduate student. Interested in animal movement, he worked with a group of wildlife biologists who were tracking the spatial behavior of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. In an effort to better understand their behavior, Moorcroft began to develop formal scaling methods to link underlying models of their movement to their resulting pattern of space use—similar to a process long employed by statistical physicists. “Physicists have always developed equations describing the large scale function of something—say the movement of a fluid—that is ultimately derived from an underlying model of how particles of the fluid behave,” says Moorcroft. Applying these types of mathematical scaling methods allowed Moorcroft and his colleagues to take measurements of coyote movement behaviors in Yellowstone, and from this, to correctly predict their larger spatial distribution on the landscape.

As he began to focus his research on climate change, he saw it as another opportunity to employ formal scaling methods the same way he did for coyotes in Yellowstone. “Biologists will measure a few plants and how they grow or they’ll do a small experiment where they subject parts of an ecosystem to drought, and then take the knowledge from that finer scale and formally scale it up,” he says. “And if we quantify how these individual plants respond at this smaller scale, we can then say how the ecosystem will respond.”

Moorcroft is currently working on a project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to determine how climate change and deforestation will affect the Amazon forest. “What our mathematical approach allows us to do is build quantitative models of those ecosystems, drawing upon what we know from measurements and experiments at smaller scales,” says Moorcroft. “The question we are being asked is, ‘What are the forests of the Amazon going to look like in 40 years?’ And that’s a question you can’t get at directly through experimentation. You can’t just replicate the Amazon.”

Moorcroft says the fate of the Amazon ecosystem also has important consequences for the region’s climate. “It’s estimated that between 30 or 40 percent of the rain in the Amazon is moisture that was put there by the trees of the Amazon,” he says. “That sets up the potential for strong feedback: If anything happens to forests of the Amazon writ large, either due to climate change or human deforestation—or more likely both—there are implications for the climate of the entire region.”

–Dan Morrell

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Environment@Harvard.

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