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Flood prevention measures need closer monitoring

Flood prevention measures need closer monitoring

Natural measures to manage river flooding can play a valuable role in flood prevention, but a lack of monitoring means their true potential remains unclear, researchers say.

A team of experts, including Professor Joseph Holden at the University of Leeds, has compiled the evidence on natural flood management in the UK, in order to better inform policy decisions and show where crucial gaps in knowledge lie.

The authors say natural measures have proved useful at preventing flooding after minor rainstorms, and can be a worthwhile component of a larger package of flood prevention measures. For measures such as tree planting which aim to change the way rainfall runs off the land, the evidence of the impact on flooding is mixed.

Meanwhile, measures to restore natural floodplains by “making room for the river”, for example by removing flood walls and other obstacles, have been shown to reduce flood water levels.

Natural flood management is an area of increasing interest for policy makers, but its implementation can present a complex balancing act between the needs of different groups, including the public, farmers and land owners. Mixed messages about the efficacy and scalability of natural flood management measures add to the uncertainty surrounding their benefits.

Professor Holden, Director of water@leeds and leader of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP) at the University’s School of Geography, said: “The 2015 Boxing Day floods proved yet again the cost and the danger of extreme floods in the UK. Reactionary measures to prevent flooding may not provide the defences needed as climate change continues to affect our weather and instances of extreme flooding increase.

“We need collaborative approaches to build knowledge and evidence to support the use of natural flood management as part of wider integrated solutions. Programmes like iCASP that involve joined-up thinking and planning across all aspects of river catchment systems will be invaluable in evaluating and establishing the best possible strategies for flood management.” 

The review and assessment of scientific evidence about natural flood monitoring came from a variety of sources, ranging from field data to model projections and expert opinion. The findings are published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

QS rankings logo

QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017

The School of Geography at the University of Leeds has had another successful year in the 2017 QS World University Rankings by Subject.

The annual survey evaluated 3,551 universities globally, on a range of subject areas and disciplines.

The rankings by subject are based on criteria such as academic reputation, employer reputation and research impact.

The School’s key acheivements include:

  • 11th in the UK and Top 25 in the World
  • Top 15 in the UK for Academic Reputation
  • Top 15 in the UK for Research Impact 

Further information

For a full breakdown of the University of Leeds results by subject, visit the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017 website.

Carbon uptake by Amazon forests matches Amazon nations’ carbon emissions 

Carbon emissions across all nine Amazon nations have been fully matched by carbon absorption by mature Amazon forests since the 1980s, new research shows.

Study lead author Professor Oliver Phillips, from the University of Leeds, said: “Since 1980 roughly 430 million tonnes of carbon has been absorbed by pristine Amazon rainforest each year, which is almost four times the UK emissions for 2016. For the nations of the Amazon basin as a whole this means that since 1980 the carbon uptake has matched the entire combined emissions from deforestation and fossil fuels.”

Co-author Dr Roel Brienen, also from the Leeds School of Geography, said: “This reveals the sheer scale of the ecosystem service the Amazon forests are providing. We’ve known that the Amazon rainforest forest provides a ‘carbon sink’ but until now no one had looked at those absorption figures in the context of national boundaries. We found that in nearly every nation carbon uptake has outstripped emissions from fossil fuels.”

The Amazon rainforest’s carbon sink, also known as carbon sequestration, is the process by which the forest removes and stores carbon from the atmosphere. A study, published today in Carbon Balance and Management, compared estimates of the Amazon rainforest carbon sink to fossil fuel emissions data from the 9 countries where mature Amazon forests are found – Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, as well as emissions from forest loss and degradation.

Climate policies alone will not save Earth's most diverse tropical forests

A focus on policies to conserve tropical forests for their carbon storage value may imperil some of the world’s most biologically rich tropical forests, says new research. 

Many countries have climate-protection policies designed to conserve tropical forests to keep their carbon locked up in trees. But the new study suggests these policies could miss some of the most diverse forests because there is no clear connection between the number of tree species in a forest and how much carbon that forest stores. 

Lead author Dr Martin Sullivan, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, said: “International programmes often encourage the conservation of forests with high carbon stocks, because their focus is to try to slow climate change. Until now, we didn’t know whether these programmes would also automatically protect the most biodiverse forests. It turns out they probably won’t.” 

A team of scientists from 22 countries measured both tree diversity and the amount of carbon stored in 360 locations across the lowland rainforests of the Amazon, Africa and Asia. In each plot the carbon stored was calculated using the diameter and identity of every tree within a given hectare (2.5 acres). In total 200,000 trees were measured in the study. 

The results, published in Scientific Reports, show that African tropical forests, spanning the Congo and West Africa store high levels of carbon, but are the least species rich. Forests in the Amazon and Asia, mostly in Borneo, have the greatest diversity of tree species, yet the Amazon tends to store less carbon per hectare than forests in Africa and Asia. 

Co-author, Dr Joey Talbot, also from the University of Leeds, explained: “In many ecosystems, sites with more species tend to lock up more carbon. But this doesn’t work for tropical forests. Most tropical forests already have many species, and it may be that beyond a certain point adding even more species makes no difference to carbon stocks.” 

Researchers discover world’s largest tropical peatland in remote Congo swamps

A vast peatland in the Congo Basin has been mapped for the first time, revealing it to be the largest in the tropics.  

The new study found that the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the central Congo Basin, which were unknown to exist five years ago, cover 145,500 square kilometres – an area larger than England. They lock in 30 billion tonnes of carbon making the region one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth.

The UK-Congolese research team spent three years exploring remote tropical swamp forests to find samples of peat for laboratory analysis. Their research, published today in Nature, combined the peat analysis with satellite data to estimate that the Congo Basin peatlands store the equivalent of three years of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions.

Co-leaders of the study, Professor Simon Lewis and Dr Greta Dargie, from University of Leeds and University College London first discovered the peatlands’, existence during fieldwork in 2012.

Professor Lewis said: “Our research shows that the peat in the central Congo Basin covers a colossal amount of land. It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics. We have also found 30 billion tonnes of carbon that nobody knew existed. The peat covers only 4 per cent of the whole Congo Basin, but stores the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96 per cent. 

Volcano erupting

New study estimates frequency of volcanic eruptions

Researchers from the School of Geography and School of Earth and Environment have published a paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters: Estimating the frequency of volcanic ash clouds over northern Europe.

Lead author Dr Liz Watson, from the School of Geography, said: “Reliable estimates of the frequency of volcanic ash events could help airlines, insurance companies and the travelling public mitigate the economic losses and disruption caused by ash clouds in the future.”

The University of Leeds researchers, alongside academics from the universities of St Andrews and South Florida, used electron microscopy and chemical analysis on samples of volcanic ash fallout to pinpoint at what point volcanic ash clouds had spread across the continent.

The team found evidence of 84 ash clouds during the last 7,000 years, most of which could be traced to eruptions from Icelandic volcanoes.

Co-author Dr Graeme Swindles is Associate Professor of Earth System Dynamics in the School of Geography at Leeds. He said: “In 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, people were really shocked – it seemed to come completely out of the blue, but the eruption of Grímsvötn, the following year, was an extraordinary coincidence.

“Although it is possible that ash clouds can occur on an annual basis, the average return interval for the last 1,000 years is around 44 years.

“The last time volcanic ash clouds affected northern Europe before the recent event was in 1947, 69 years ago – but aviation was much less intense at that time and it simply didn’t have the same sort of impact.

“Our research shows that, over thousands of years, these sorts of incidents are not that rare – but people wondering how likely it is that the 2010 chaos will be repeated in the next few years can feel somewhat reassured.”

The researchers also looked at the intensity of the eruptions responsible for producing volcanic ash clouds. They found that volcanic activity likely to produce ashfall in northern Europe would typically measure four or above on the internationally-recognised Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

“Eruptions can’t always be indexed rapidly,” explained co-author Dr Ivan Savov, of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment.

“But in cases where that calculation can be made early on, it will give a good indication of the likelihood of volcanic ash causing a major problem.

“The 2010 eruption cost billions in terms of lost revenues and there was an effect on the global economy, so the work we’ve been able to do to quantify the risk will be of interest to insurance companies trying to make sense of the potential for future air traffic disruptions.”


Leeds is top UK university environmental impact of research

Times Higher Education news story has  shown Leeds is the top UK university for the environmental impact  of its research and eighth in the world between 2011-2015, based on field weighted citation impact (from Elsevier’s Scopus database). Utrecht University in The Netherlands came top, followed by Stanford, Stockholm and Harvard. The University of Oxford came ninth.

Leeds’ score was boosted by having highly cited researchers on multi-author papers, such as Oliver Philips (School of Geography), whose paper A large and persistent sink in the world’s forests (Science, 2011) had 1733 citations; Andy Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation and Director of the NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling and lead author of A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance (Science, 2012), which had 557 citations, and Priestley International Centre for Climate director Piers Forster, one of four lead authors of Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: A Scientific Assessment, a multi-author paper by Bond et al (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 2013), which had 1269.

Cocktail of drugs polluting rivers

A study by scientists in the School of Geography suggests that pharmaceuticals are polluting our rivers more than pesticides. 

In a research paper on pharmaceutical pollution in the rivers Aire and Calder in West Yorkshire, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, the scientists highlight the lack of legislation to regulate the presence of drugs in rivers.

Dr Paul Kay, from the research centre water@leeds at the University of Leeds, said: “It’s worrying how little legislation exists for pharmaceuticals in our rivers. Pharmaceuticals are an important environmental pollutant and they should be added to and regulated under existing policies.”

Although the likelihood of human health impacts due to pharmaceuticals in the environment is low, their presence is a major ecological concern due to the potential for effects on aquatic organism behaviour, growth, reproduction and mortality at trace concentrations.

Previous studies of UK pharmaceutical pollution had focused on south-east England and parts of south Wales, with very few studies in central, western and northern England or Scotland.

In the new study, the researchers sampled water from the rivers Aire and Calder over an 18-month period, looking for five specific drugs: ibuprofen, erythromycin, diclofenac, mefanamic acid and propanolol.

Dr Lee Brown, also from water@leeds and a co-author of the paper, said: “Pharmaceutical pollution of rivers is not yet regulated, and in 46% of the samples we found the concentration of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac was more than double the limit proposed by the European Commission. The scale of the problem is clear when we compare with pesticides in the UK, which exceed the threshold for only 6% of samples monitored.” 

Major new water solutions programme to benefit the Yorkshire economy by £50 million

A new £6 million project led by the University of Leeds is predicted to bring a £50 million benefit to the Yorkshire economy by reducing the costs and impact of water-related threats to the region. 

Bringing together partners from across the region and using existing research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the team will look to join up ways of improving water quality, resilience to floods and droughts, carbon storage and biodiversity. In doing so, the project will make more efficient uses of resources and enable planning across the whole catchment area, bringing both economic and societal benefits.

Work on the project, called Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP), will begin in March 2017.

Professor Joseph Holden, leader of Yorkshire iCASP and Director of the University’s research group water@leeds, said: "By creating a region that is better able to deal with a more variable climate, and develop integrated solutions to floods, droughts, water quality and carbon storage it will become an area that attracts investment as people and their businesses opt to live and work in an area that has adapted to the severe effects of environmental change, with improved quality of life."

People in boat

Dr Tim Baker will lead a new project to understand the resilience of the forests of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region to climate change

Dr Tim Baker will lead a new project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to understand the resilience of the forests of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region to climate change and incorporate this information into the management of the protected area network. 

The project, also involving Professor Oliver Phillips and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana, the Jardin Botanico de Missouri, Wake Forest University, the Wildlife Conservation Society – Peru and the Servicio Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, Peru (SERNANP; the Peruvian Protected Areas Authority), builds on the long-term RAINFOR forest plot network in Amazonia. 

The protected areas of the Andes Amazon region of Peru contain some of the world’s most diverse forests and are a natural laboratory for studying the effects of climate change in the tropics. 

This project will use permanent forest plots located along gradients of rainfall, elevation and flood duration to compare how different environmental drivers are affecting forest structure and composition. 

By working closely with SERNANP, a key component of the project is to inform management policies of the protected areas of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region. 

The $1.5 million project aims to integrate the permanent plot network with the protected area monitoring system of SERNANP, as well as ensuring that the results inform management plans for economically-important species and are used to design a protected area network that is resilient to climate change.

Modern Day Slavery – Dr Louise Waite talks to ITV Calendar News

Home Office figures suggest there are up to 13,000 people in the UK being held in modern-day slavery.

This month a new national campaign has been launched to not only raise awareness but also tackle the crime.

Dr Louise Waite, Associate Professor in Human Geography from the School of Geography, University of Leeds, appeared on ITV Calendar News on 6 Oct 2016 to talk about modern-day slavery and forced labour in the UK.

Uprooted – Brixton housing documentary at the Ritzy

A new documentary on the London housing crisis, partly based on research by Dr Stuart Hodkinson, is being screened on 5 June at the Ritzy, in Brixton. Uprooted, by award-winning director Ross Domoney, follows the last days of two residents on the Myatts Field North estate in Lambeth as it goes through a regeneration programme.

Dr Hodkinson's ESRC project explored residents' experiences of housing regeneration under the controversial Private Finance Initiative and will be talking about the Myatts Field North experience alongside residents.See a trailer here.

Cutting fuel costs and CO2 emissions

Cars of the future which advise how to drive more safely and economically could bring significant cuts in fuel consumption and emissions.

Eco-driving systems offer visual guidance to drivers, usually built in to satellite navigation systems or via smartphone apps.The systems are not yet widely available, but manufacturers are looking at installing them in their next generation of cars.

The ecoDriver project, led by the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds with industry partners including BMW, Daimler, CRF (Fiat-Chrysler) and TomTom Telematics, showed that drivers of cars which had such systems installed saved an average of 4.2% in fuel and CO2 emissions, with an even higher saving of 5.8% on rural roads. Embedded systems – ones built in to vehicles – were more effective than apps, with fuel savings of up to 6% (against an average 2.5% for the smartphone app).

The findings are the aggregated results of on-road trials in 2014-2015, which involved nine separate trial locations in seven EU countries, including around 200 drivers, 61 vehicles, 11 different systems and a total of 340,000 km driven.   Professor Oliver Carsten, Professor of Transport Safety and ecoDriver co-ordinator, said: “The results from our trials with a large range of eco-driving systems indicate substantial fuel and energy savings can be gained when drivers are given precisely tailored advice on the best speed and gear for cutting fuel costs and emissions, as well as foresight of how to drive when approaching a particular road or traffic situation.

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Freddie Draper wins Leeds University Postgraduate Researcher of the Year

Many congratulations to Freddie Draper who won the Leeds University Postgraduate Researcher of the Year award on the 8th December. This year’s awards focussed on the actual and potential impact of research; Freddie’s work, focussed on mapping and understanding the distribution of peat and biodiversity in Amazonian swamps has been used as the science basis for a new $6 million conservation project in Peru. This new investment is the first project to be funded by the Green Climate Fund (GCF;, the major international funding mechanism that has been created to fund mitigation and adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

The project will promote and develop sustainable ‘bio-businesses’, including sustainable palm fruit harvesting, with indigenous communities along the Pastaza and Morona rivers of the northern Peruvian Amazon. The GCF funding for this initiative is justified on the basis that these activities will protect the high peatland carbon stocks of the region – which were calculated based on Freddie’s work. The potential impact of Freddie’s work is, however, even larger. The location of this successful GCF proposal is only on the fringes of mapped peat deposits and does not include the areas with the highest carbon stocks.

The overall aim of on-going work with supervisors Tim Baker, Katy Roucoux and Ian Lawson is to support the development of sustainable protected areas across the whole of this peatland complex - an area of currently largely undisturbed tropical rain forest that is equivalent to the size of England.

More than half of all tree species in the Amazon may be globally threatened

Professor Oliver Phillips, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, said: "To put the threat to Amazon diversity in context, this unprecedented analysis shows that for each tree species found in the British Isles there are now up to one hundred and seventy threatened in the Amazon."

Forests in the Amazon have been declining since the 1950s, but scientists still have a poor understanding of how this has affected populations of individual species.

The new study compared data from forest surveys across the Amazon with maps of current and projected deforestation to estimate how many tree species have been lost, and where.

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Peatland Code could significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions

A new Government-backed code has been launched that could slash UK carbon dioxide emissions by 220 million tonnes and protect rare wildlife by restoring moors, bogs and mires.

The Peatland Code wass unveiled at the World Forum for Natural Capital in Edinburgh on 23 November following a successful two-year trial, which has seen businesses fund peatland restoration projects in southwest England, the Lake District and Wales.

The Code is based on research by academics at the University of Leeds and Birmingham City University, which revealed that sustainable business investment could reverse the degradation of peatlands and significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography, who led research, said: “The peatlands of the UK are our own version of the Amazon rainforest. They need to be protected. They are home to some of our rare and endangered wildlife.

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Air quality management leaves poor behind

Analysis of a decade of air quality change in Britain has revealed that deprived neighbourhoods have benefited least from improving air quality, and bear a growing share of the remaining poor and failing air quality.

Using air quality data produced for government’s compliance reporting to the EU, a national spatial analysis of air quality change from 2001 to 2011 related changes in concentrations of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulates (PM10) to area deprivation. Levels of NO2 fell substantially over the period, whilst PM10 levels rose marginally, probably due to the increasing popularity of diesel vehicles.

The study, by Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin, shows that air quality improvement was fastest in the most affluent neighbourhoods, nearly all of which now comply with the NO2 annual average standard. Of the half a million people that still live in an area that does not comply with this standard, 85% are in the most deprived neighbourhoods, up from 66% in 2001. No areas exceed the annual average PM10 standard, but over 9 million people now reside in areas above the more stringent WHO guideline value, of which 59% are in the most deprived areas.

The results, published in Environmental Research Letters, imply that the substantial national burden of disease from air quality  (29,000 premature deaths/yr from particulates and 23,500 deaths/yr from NO2) is increasingly falling on the poor. The authors call on government to make equity analysis part of their clean air planning, to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are treated fairly and adequately protected.

Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin (In press) Who benefits from environmental policy? An environmental justice analysis of air quality change in Britain, 2001-2011. Environmental Research Letters, 10 105009.

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Unlocking the secrets of consumer behaviour

The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), directed by Professor Mark Birkin of the school of Geography, launches its data services today, offering new data for researchers to garner unprecedented insights into consumer behaviour.

The multi-million pound Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) initiative, commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is a collaboration between the UK's leading universities and a growing list of industry partners to better understand the millions of data points we generate each day. 

Bringing together the universities of Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford and University College London, the CDRC has created a safe and secure data infrastructure which seeks to share these insights with academia, industry and the public at large.

Whilst protecting privacy, data will - for the first time - be routinely collected and shared with the CDRC by major retailers, local government organisations and businesses across the UK to improve understanding of these complex patterns of consumer behaviour.

The aim is to use these findings to inform efforts to tackle a wide range of social and environmental challenges, such as improving transport planning, studying the latest ethical consumer trends to help companies understand how people are making buying decisions, or identifying different ways of encouraging people to lead more healthy and active lifestyles.

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New species of testate amoeba discovered by Graeme Swindles in Amazonia

Diverse ecological communities of Amazonia play a crucial role in the maintenance of the biosphere. However, little is known about the microbial ecology of Amazonia. During an analysis of litter from an Amazonian wetland we discovered a new species of testate (‘shell-forming’) amoeba (TA) we have named Arcella peruviana (Reczuga et al., 2015). Probably many more new species of microbe remain undiscovered in Amazonia. TA occupy top positions in the microbial food web and have a wide range of feeding preferences including bacteria, algae, fungi and other protozoa.

Owing to this connection with abundance and community structure in the lower trophic levels, TA are highly important in terms of soil nutrient and carbon cycling. It has recently been discovered that deforestation leads to net loss of diversity of soil bacteria, which may also inhibit the recovery of tropical forest (Rodrigues et al., 2012). This would impact the higher microbial trophic levels – including TA. Soil microbes represent the largest component of biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems and are important in terms of ecosystem functioning. Microbial biodiversity should not be ignored when considering the impacts of human activities and climate change in Amazonia.

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Climate change threatens precious UK ecosystem

An entire ecosystem is at risk from the effects of climate change on the UK’s blanket bogs, scientists at the University of Leeds have warned.

These wetland habitats provide important feeding and nesting grounds for bird species including the dunlin, red grouse and golden plover. Blanket bogs are also the source of most of our drinking water and vital carbon stores.

The scientists warn that the effects of climate change, such as altered rainfall patterns and summer droughts, could drastically affect bog hydrology, which in turn could affect insect and bird populations.

Study co-author Professor Joseph Holden is Director of water@leeds, one of the largest interdisciplinary centres for water research in the world. He said: “Our study shows the interconnectedness of our precious upland peatlands in the UK.

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Sir Peter Hendy awarded an honorary degree for services to transport

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Launch of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics

A new institute set up to help public and private sector organisations meet the challenges and opportunities of the Big Data revolution opens its doors today.

The Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) offers state-of-the-art facilities in data analytics and will partner with researchers and organisations to help them make the most of the rapidly growing fields of consumer and medical data analysis.

Professor Mark Birkin, Director of LIDA, explained more about today’s one-day event, the LIDA Research Forum. He said: “Today is all about making sure researchers and organisations know about LIDA and the expertise, support and resources we can offer. 

“Using large and complex data sets presents huge challenges for organisations. They may be combining different data with their own sales data, analysing and integrating data from various sources, or simply thinking about diverse data sets that can be pulled together to reveal new insights.

“With all these challenges, there is a constant need for new techniques and tools, and to ensure organisations have the right data analytics capabilities. That’s where LIDA comes in – we’re a trusted partner that has developed world-class facilities under one roof, so we’ve raised the bar in standards of secure data storage, access and analysis.”

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New e book launched by Jon Lovett: When Worlds Collide

Making decisions about managing  natural resources can be difficult; this interactive book explores why fairness needs to be part of policy. Policies about managing nature should be economically and environmentally sound, but they also need to be formulated with social fairness if they are to be sustainable. Inevitably, when there are so many different values, conflicts occur and worlds collide.

This book examines a number of basic principles and applies them to two case studies. These basic principles can be applied in many different contexts and the case studies used in this book are drawn from all over the world. There are no easy answers to many questions about the management of nature, but an understanding of the principles we discuss and learning how to apply them will help you make better decisions.

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