Cambridge on World Environment Day 2024

Spotlight on Cambridge climate researchers

worms eye view of forest during day time worms eye view of forest during day time

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

This year's World Environment Day focus is on land restoration. So we spoke with three Cambridge researchers working on reviving landscapes, boosting biodiversity, and collaborating with communities to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Centering local and indigenous communities for a justice-driven conservation approach

Joycelyn Longdon is a PhD researcher focussing on bioacoustic methods for monitoring forest restoration, with a focus on designing a justice-led conservation approach that centres on indigenous and local communities. As a climate justice educator, with nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram, she uses her online platform to make climate conversations more diverse, accessible and hopeful.

Her social and environmental justice activism led her to combine her STEM skills to focus on bioacoustics monitoring methods.

Pictured: Joycelyn Longdon

Joycelyn Longdon

Joycelyn Longdon

“Bioacoustics is essentially shazam for nature”, Longdon explained.

Bioacoustics uses audio sensors to listen to noises in the forests, allowing conservationists to identify important species for biodiversity, as well as locate human activities, such as logging. Machine learning techniques convert this large amount of data into insights for ecologists, which she calls the “datafication of the forests”.

"Forests aren't just environments to be sensed, measured, and protected - they hold deep generations-old culture and wisdom, powerful healing, and essential connection," said Longdon, who works with Birdlife International.

A real concern for communities who call forests home is the constant surveillance from audio devices that are mined by Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms without their consent. Longdon believes this is a violation of the local communities' right to privacy and reminiscent of colonial history as local communities are excluded from the conservation conversation.

pictured: local community members in Ghana

Community members in Ghana working with Joycelyn

Community members in Ghana working with Joycelyn

During fieldwork in Ghana, Longdon worked with indigenous peoples and local communities to involve them in the decision-making processes, “centering justice at the heart of data-driven conservation”. Local ecological knowledge and community agency were the keys to creating participatory monitoring projects.

Longdon's main challenges: “Designing accessible and culturally appropriate technological interfaces and meeting community needs and agendas”.

trees in Ghana where Joycelyn has worked

“Every day I have spent in the forest with community members has been memorable"

Joycelyn Longdon

“Every year, where we see the snow, is now less and less”

Konstantis Alexopoulos

Greece may be known for its beaches and islands, but its snowy mountains provide an essential water supply for many lowland communities.

Konstantis Alexopoulos, a PhD student at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, in collaboration with the National Observatory of Athens, is researching how global temperature rises are affecting snow levels,and the communities that rely on snow in the mountains of Greece.

Researcher Konstantis Alexopoulos (pictured) standing behind melting snow fields at Mt. Grammos, in Greece.

Konstantis Alexopoulos, Mt. Grammos, Greece

Konstantis Alexopoulos, Mt. Grammos, Greece

His fieldwork finds him in remote places at altitudes above 2000m, installing automatic instruments, such as weather stations, to measure snowfall. A combination of field data, satellite imagery, and numerical modelling uncovers the unique ways each mountain is affected by climate change.

"Knowing what’s coming helps us to better prepare,” Alexopoulos said.

But why is snow so important? And why does it matter?

“The value of snow extends beyond its critical role as a water supply for local communities – irrigation, industry, and hydroelectric power generation all rely on water from the snow.”

The Mediterranean region is a climate change "hotspot", warming and drying out faster than most places as global greenhouse emissions continue to increase. The communities that will be impacted the most are reliant on water from snow to sustain daily life, especially as there is going to be less snow each year.

Alexopoulos explains that the ability of mountains to act as "climate regulators", moderating temperatures and protecting areas around them from drought, is being compromised. That leaves those areas even more exposed to the effects of global temperature rises.

These dryer and warmer conditions are affecting what Alexopoulos calls "fragile processes", causing the winter season to shrink and the impacts of climate change to become more profound.

He hopes his research will bring more informed decision-making and an evidence-based approach to sustainable resource management at local and national levels that can protect high-elevation ecosystems and their communities.

Snowy mountain pictured

Credit: Konstantinos Sofikitis - Mt. Tymfi, Greece

Credit: Konstantinos Sofikitis - Mt. Tymfi, Greece

Dr Charlotte Wheeler standing on a bridge in Danum Valley Conservation Area in Malaysian Borneo

Dr Charlotte Wheeler, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Dr Charlotte Wheeler, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Working with local communities for long-term forest recovery in Brazil

Dr Charlotte Wheeler is a forest ecologist at the Cambridge Centre for Carbon Credits, focussed on researching forest restoration and innovative carbon credits systems in regions of moist tropical forests.

“If we get this right, we have a huge potential opportunity to bring back forests that are being disturbed, improve livelihoods and biodiversity,” said Dr Wheeler, who is also a research associate at the Conservation Research Institute at Cambridge.

Dr Wheeler's work explores how to use new monitoring technologies to assess tropical forest regrowth, partnering with restoration projects in Brazil.

She measures forest restoration activity using remote satellite sensors known as LiDAR, which map forest structures by sending laser signals that bounce back from the trees.

This enables her to map carbon stock change (trapping, or ‘sequestering’, carbon in tree stems) from on-the-ground restoration activities.

Charlotte in a boat on a river completing fieldwork in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

International agreements for forest restoration often lack transparency about the location of restoration efforts. Dr Wheeler's work advances a form of carbon credits to restore forest ecosystems, termed reforestation credits - unlocking finance to improve forest management.

“While these trees have been lost, they can definitely be brought back, these disturbed forests still have immense value”, said Dr Wheeler

Charlotte completing monitoring field work with local communities in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Malaysian Borneo

“The trees won’t exist forever, but integrating local perspectives and resource needs ensure the longevity of reforestation activities”

Dr Charlotte Wheeler

Published 05 June 2024

Images: Joycelyn Longdon, Konstantis Alexopoulos, Konstantis Sofikitis, and Charlotte Wheeler.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cambridge Zero is the University of Cambridge’s ambitious climate change initiative, harnessing the power of research to tackle climate change at one of the top global research universities in the world.