Understanding the interconnected impacts of climate change and land-use change.

Dr Alessandro Gimona is an ecologist and a geographer working at a range of scales, from regional to continental. His research concerns the consequences of land-use change and climate change on terrestrial and aquatic systems. Advancing our understanding of landscapes’ physical and biological attributes and of their spatial relations, can help protect biodiversity, and achieve more sustainable development by increasing multiple benefits while reducing the trade-offs between them.

A smiling head and shoulders shot of Alessandra Gimona
Dr Alessandro Gimona

Alessandro has led several projects modelling and mapping a range of benefits that can be derived from the land. These include an overview of key benefits for the whole of Scotland that underpin the ability to make informed decisions on how landscapes could be used sustainably.

“Harnessing the information contained in a large amount of geographic data and integrating them with field surveys is key to this research,” Alessandro explains. “This has advanced thanks also to the unique collection of geographic data bases that the James Hutton Institute has put together over many decades.”

Most of his research, he stresses, “has benefitted hugely from collaborations with a number of very good scientists who are also a pleasure to work with.”

One of the important contributions of this work has been showing how to use satellite remote sensing, coupled with measurements taken on the ground, to understand soil properties over large areas. For example, the distribution of carbon in the landscape, and the condition of peatlands.

Beyond carbon

Alessandro and his colleagues also used spatial models to understand where best to expand woodlands to reconcile carbon capture with forest connectivity and the protection of valuable non-forest habitat.

They mapped in detail where in Scotland there is an opportunity to gain and a risk to lose carbon from the landscape by expanding forests in the next decades, especially if commercial planting methods are used.

This research has contributed to a better understanding of the role and limitations of woodlands in providing offsets for climate change mitigation and has shown that, at the national scale, spatial analysis can be used to highlight areas affected by multiple environmental problems.

Nature-based solutions

Alessandro’s research has also shown advantages in the use of ecosystem restoration to address such problems. For example, he has shown that it would be possible to expand forests and, at the same time, protect not only carbon stocks but also non-forest species, while increasing woodland connectivity, alleviating stress of sensitive river species, and reducing nutrient pollution in rivers. This has led to developing methods to identify areas that could be prioritised at the national and regional level.

To increase the practical impact of the work, Alessandro has led the development of web-based tools that facilitate planning of new woodlands by practitioners, and landscape planning in general. These tools facilitate participation in decisions which, Alessandro emphasizes, “is really important because landscape-level conservation also depends on people’s perspectives and values.” Some of the tools will be used by the Riverwoods initiative to support decisions on where to plant riparian woodlands.

Future nature

“The future of nature conservation will be (inter alia) influenced by societal trends and climate change,” says Alessandro. “How these interact will influence ecosystems and the species that live in them.” His current research uses scenarios provided by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, adapted to Scotland and made spatial, to project the possible impacts on ecosystem benefits and disbenefits. “This requires collaboration with many colleagues and is particularly rewarding because it breaks barriers between different disciplines,” he says.

The research advances understanding of how national biodiversity conservation and environmental quality might be affected by the international climate and land-use context.

About his background, Alessandro says: “I am Italian. I did my first degree in environmental biology in Italy. Then, after briefly working for an environmental agency, I moved to the UK to do my Master’s and PhD, and I have been based here since then. In secondary school I was uncertain between humanities and science. I was converted to the idea of a scientific career by a brilliant biology teacher in the last couple of years of my secondary school. I originally wanted to study humanities, and some of my main subjects in school were Ancient Greek, Latin and philosophy, but I decided I could still cultivate those interests while becoming a scientist – and I have. This has stimulated me always to try and see the big picture, the context in which my research sits, and has led me to believe we should strive for consilience.”

Dr Alessandro Gimona is a Landscape Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute. His work is supported by the Scottish Government and others. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further Reading

Beale, C.M., et al., 2008. Opening the climate envelope reveals no macroscale associations with climate in European birds. PNAS 105: 14908—14912. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0803506105

Poggio, L. & Gimona, A. 2013. National scale 3D modelling of soil organic carbon stocks with uncertainty propagation — An example from Scotland. Geoderma 233-234: 284—299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoderma.2014.05.004

Gimona A, et al. 2015. Habitat networks and food security: promoting species range shift under climate change depends on life history and the dynamics of land use choices. Landscape Ecology. 30:771—89. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-015-0158-8

Gonzales-Redin, J., et al. 2016. Spatial Bayesian belief networks as a planning decision tool for mapping ecosystem services trade-offs on forested landscapes. Environmental Research 144: 15—26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2015.11.009

Baggio-Compagnucci, A., et al. 2022. Barking up the wrong tree? Can forest expansion help meet climate goals? Environmental Science and Policy 136: 237—49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2022.05.011

Toca, L., et al. 2022. High resolution C-band SAR backscatter response to peatland water table depth and soil moisture: a laboratory experiment. International Journal of Remote Sensing 43(14).https://doi.org/10.1080/01431161.2022.2131478