A large body of research is now focusing on the understanding of mechanisms regulating ecosystem functioning, predictions on their activity in the long-term, and the management practices to keep them running. For this purpose, Hasselt University decided to invest in the construction of a high tech research infrastructure: the Ecotron Hasselt University, where up to twelve large ecosystem replicates can be continuously monitored and controlled. The ecotrons are fed with real-time climatic data from a nearby ICOS ecosystem station located on top of a heathland landscape.
The CMK started there an experiment to investigate the effect of climate change on the ecosystem services provided by the dry heathland ecosystem. The aim is to tackle this research question with an interdisciplinary and complementary research consortium built of internationally recognized researchers. This includes engineers and specialists of such type of large research infrastructure (CNRS Montpellier, France), soil hydrologists (FZ Juelich, Germany), general ecologists (Manchester University, UK), climatologists (VUB, Belgium), soil food web specialists (UAmsterdam, the Netherlands), soil community microbiologists (Vienna University, Austria; UAntwerp, Belgium), biogeochemical cycle modellers (University of Aberdeen, UK), community modellers (UNamur, Belgium), plant ecologists (INBO, Belgium), tick specialists (McCaulay Institute, Aberdeen, UK), chemists (UHasselt, Belgium); but also specialists in ecosystem service measurements (UAntwerp, Belgium) and environmental economists (UHasselt, Belgium).
The heathland “monoliths” in the ecotrons will be exposed to i) a gradient of increased variability in precipitation regimes (6 units) and ii) to increaslingly severe climate change scenarii (not only increasingly variable precipitation regimes but also increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations and average temperatures: 6 units).
In the ecotrons, we will measure continuously abiotic parameters (atmospheric CO2, N2O, CH4; Net radiation and photosynthetically active radiation; relative humidity, temperature, air pressure), but also soil processes that drive three major ES in this environment: water, C and nutrient cycles. The role of soil microbes in these processes and how climate change will affect their impact is yet not well known: we want to investigate this topic in depth, through combinations of community analyses of the soil food web (microbes and soil fauna), functional measurements (enzyme activities), controlled in-vitro side experiments (N and P resource use by soil microbes and fauna, stress resistance, relationship diversity / function), and modelling. The experiment is planned to start in summer 2018.
There are already several PhD, master and bachelor students who are (or have been) working on this project. This includes:
-Designing and testing a model predicting the effects of climate change on a simple heathland soil food web and the consequences for the C cycle.
Wouter Reyns, PhD (co-supervision between Frederik De Laender at UNamur and Francois Rineau at UHasselt).
-Investigating the effects of climate change on fungal mineralization of N and P.
Natascha Arnauts , PhD (supervision by Francois Rineau at UHasselt)
-Characterizing the decomposition of fungal biomass in the dry heathland ecosystem.
Mathias Lenaers, MsC (supervision by Francois Rineau at UHasselt).
-Exploring the relationships between microbial diversity and N mineralization in dry heathland ecosystems.
Esther Huijgens, Toon Machiels, Maria Del Mar Martinez Sanchez, Bachelors (supervision by Tony Remans at PXL and Wouter Reyns at UHasselt)
-Isolating and identifying fungi from heathland soil
Patrycja Krupinska, Talha Yildiz, Sherilyn Saro, Esther Huijgens, Bachelors (supervision by Tony Remans at PXL and Wouter Reyns at UHasselt)
-Measuring the economic value of dry heathland ecosystem services and predicting how it will be affected by climate change
Anne Nobel, PhD (co-supervision between Robert Malina and Francois Rineau at UHasselt)
-Modelling the fluxes of water within the dry heathland canopy
TBD in 2018, PhD (co-supervision by Jochem Schuetz and Natalie Beenaerts at UHasselt)
-Designing the climate change gradient experiment in the ecotrons: from climate predictions to weather simulations.
Inne Vanderkelen, PhD (supervision by Wim Thiery at VUB)
-Monitoring the plant cover in the ecotrons
In collaboration with Gerald Louette, INBO
-Monitoring the soil water chemistry in the ecotrons
In collaboration with Thomas Puetz, FZ Juelich
-Monitoring soil microbial communities in the ecotrons
In collaboration with Erik Verbruggen, UAntwerp