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Study information

Tropical Forests in a Changing World

Module titleTropical Forests in a Changing World
Module codeGEO3230
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Ted Feldpausch (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Tropical forests. The words evoke images of towering trees, extraordinary plant and wildlife diversity, the last “wilderness” on Earth, indigenous inhabitants, and deforestation and forest fires. These varied and often contrasting images highlight the multiple complex roles tropical forests hold in our changing world, where forests face unprecedented threats from resource exploitation and changing climate. Understanding, protecting, managing, and restoring these systems is one of the most pressing issues currently faced by society, scientists, and policymakers, and requires knowledge and skills that cross traditional academic disciplinary boundaries.

Tropical forests are exceptionally diverse, hold an important role in large-scale biogeochemical processes, modify climate, provide livelihoods for forest dwellers, and are undergoing rapid transformation through deforestation and land-use change. This module is designed to cover key topics in the ecology, function, conservation, management, and restoration of tropical forests, with a focus on developing skills to evaluate the risks they face and how they may change due to a variety of drivers. The module comprises a combination of lectures, supplemented by practical work through computer exercises, coding in R, and data analysis, hands-on experience, and oral and written exercises to develop skills enabling you to understand and address complex issues related to tropical forests in a changing world.

As a pre-requisite, you are expected to have strong computing skills, including an excellent working knowledge of spreadsheets (e.g., Excel) and a confident understanding of statistical approaches, e.g., regression. Most importantly, you are expected to have a positive attitude towards using mathematical equations and to participate in data processing, calculations, and statistical analyses using spreadsheets, GIS, and extensive use of R for summative practical reports, e.g., writing and using code in R for analyses. You are also required to participate in group practicals.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The overall module aims are to develop an understanding of how tropical forests have developed, the current changes they are undergoing, and how forests may alter in the future due to humans and changing climate. We examine the history and ecology of tropical forests, the drivers of diversity, the roles forests play in interacting with our Earth climate system and changes they may undergo under a drier and hotter climate, major limitations to forest productivity, drivers of change, and using this information, critically assess land-use programmes such as timber extraction under forest certification and carbon policy instruments such as REDD+. The module is designed to be suitable for both specialists and non-specialist students. Computer practicals provide hands-on experience to learn ecological data analysis techniques using Excel and using R and writing your own R code.

Module content is derived from and focusses on pan-tropical publications and research led by the module convenor and his research group on forest response to disturbance, restoration, drought, fire, changes in species diversity, and forest-climate interactions.

In this module, we aim to enhance your employability through the encouragement and development of personal skills, self-presentation and confidence and by increasing your awareness of how the module content contributes to positive graduate attributes. Specifically, you will develop the following attributes:

  • interpersonal skills such as team leadership and management and effective communication through preparation of scientific reports, performing group work during the field trip, and delivering data and key findings to the whole class.
  • confidence in public speaking through discussion and debates during lectures and practicals.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe and critically evaluate the properties, patterns, and function of tropical forests, and the challenges that are encountered in forest management, restoration, and conservation
  • 2. Identify, acquire, critically evaluate, analyse and synthesise tropical forest and environmental data from a range of sources
  • 3. Discuss the mechanisms and interactions responsible for past, current, and future changes in tropical forest distribution and function
  • 4. Explain the synergistic interactions among environmental variables and anthropogenic factors involved in tropical forest change and how these affect forests at various spatial scales

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Identify, and critically evaluate the diverse range of specialised techniques and approaches involved in collecting, generating, and analysing data
  • 6. Identify and critically evaluate the application of scientific results in policy and conservation
  • 7. Outline the significance of these relationships in space and time, the interconnections between natural and human-induced impacts, and the current and potential future impacts and feedbacks on local and regional climate

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 9. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 10. Formulate and evaluate questions and identify and evaluate approaches to problem solving
  • 11. Undertake independent and group learning

Syllabus plan

The module Tropical Forests in a Changing World takes us on a journey through time in tropical forests, first exploring the early rise of tropical forests, and how early indigenous people may have modified these systems. We then proceed into the present and examine tropical forest diversity, carbon cycling, forest ecology, the role of soils and nutrient limitations, and how forests interact with the environment and are affected by climate and humans in our changing world. Finally, we examine sustainable land-use and carbon policy instruments such as REDD+, and how these may benefit or hinder the future conservation of tropical forests.

Computer-based practicals with R to write your own R code to analyse data will enhance understanding of the theory and calculations involved in evaluating carbon cycling and analysing tropical forest data. A field-trip practical to the tropical biome at the Eden Project and group work will provide an opportunity to explore and study a variety of tropical species, forest-use, and forest-climate interactions, and develop skills in critically evaluating published studies.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching13Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Computer lab practicals
Scheduled Learning and Teaching7Field trip
Guided Independent Study44Reading linked to lectures
Guided Independent Study76Work on coursework, practicals and repor

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Quizzes during lectures1-2 slides per lectureAllOral
Computer lab practicals1-2.5 hours eachAllOral
Visit Eden Project Tropical Biome1 dayAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Practical report 1502000 wordsAllWritten
Practical report 2502000 wordsAllWritten

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Practical report 1Practical report 1AllAugust Ref/Def
Practical report 2Practical report 2AllAugust Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination or submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Ghazoul, J. and Sheil, D. (2010) Tropical rain forest ecology, diversity, and conservation. Oxford, 496 pp.
  • Whitmore, T.C. (1998) An Introduction to tropical rain forests (2nd edition). Oxford, 296 pp.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

  • ELE page: (reading lists and scientific articles from journals such as Science, Nature, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Biogeosciences, Global Ecology and Biogeography, etc. will be made available via ELE)

Key words search

Forest ecology, land-use, soil fertility, climate change, drought, biodiversity, REDD+, forest certification, logging, deforestation, agriculture, indigenous land-use, restoration, forest fire

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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