Breathing Life Back into Our Planet – An Interview with Professor Thomas Crowther

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Professor Thomas Crowther is an acclaimed scientist recognized for his groundbreaking work on the threats to biodiversity and climate change. He is with ETH Zurich which is a public research university. He specializes in ecosystem ecology and is the chief scientific advisor for the Trillion Tree Campaign to the United Nations Organization.

Thomas Crowther
Professor Thomas Crowther / Photo: From the Archive of Professor Thomas Crowther

Professor Thomas Crowther, first of all, tell us about your bottom-up approach towards the ecosystem.

Rather than building global models from satellite observations, we try to collect data from ecologists all over the world who are characterizing their ecosystems. We then use this information to inform the satellite observations, which can then be used to extrapolate the patterns across the globe. Using this combination of approaches, we can get really interesting insights into the structure and functioning of ecosystems around the world.

 

It is said you are holistic towards your work. Would you explain this?

Rather than focussing on one or two parts of the ecosystem, we try to use study the entire ecosystem as a whole, including everything from the microscopic organisms in the soil, all the way to the biggest trees. All of these organisms interact with one another and facilitate the functioning of the ecosystems. This requires a very interdisciplinary approach with various different skill sets all working together.

 

How large is the team you are assisted by?

We are a relatively large group of about 30 people. Everyone has different sets of skills  and expertise, which enables us to collaborate a lot as we work towards the overall goals.

 

It has also been said that you make your best efforts to support women scientists. Please tell us more about this.

A happy working environment requires a diverse mixture of people and a good gender balance

We really believe that a happy working environment requires a diverse mixture of people and a good gender balance. Unfortunately, at the moment in our field, we currently receive many more job applications from men than we do from women. As such, we are actively searching to recruit excellent female scientists to lead different research fields. We have also been in communication with the 500 women scientists, who are an inspiring group of experts, to try to promote gender equality in our group and beyond. And these efforts seem to be working, as we have recently started to receive a larger number of applications from exceptional women scientists, several of whom will be joining our lab this year.

 

If London is going to be as warm as Barcelona over the next couple of decades what will become of those areas of the world that already experience summers between 45 and 50 degrees Centigrade?

Many areas are getting warmer. In fact, the biggest increases in temperature are likely to be seen in the higher latitudes. But in the lower latitudes that are already experiencing very warm climates, possibly the more concerning trend is that we are starting to see extreme changes in precipitation and drought. In many areas of the tropics, increased severity of  droughts and water shortages could have drastic implications for human health and wellbeing.

 

It would be far fetched to think that the world will ever replace the 46 percent of the trees it has lost. At the same time how optimistic are you?

Conserving forests is essential for biodiversity, human wellbeing and climate change.

It is likely that natural ecosystems are more depleted now than any time since human civilization. And we are currently continuing to lose over 10 billion trees each year.

However, in the last few years, I have seen a lot of energy that makes me optimistic that we might be able to stop this trend, and maybe start tipping the balance in the other direction. The more we understand about the scale of these ecosystems, the more we understand what we need to do. Conserving forests is essential for biodiversity, human wellbeing and climate change. And now that people around the world are beginning to see that, I think that we are beginning to see a surge of energy and support for these efforts to protect and restore ecosystems around the world.

Humanity has achieved far more unlikely things in the past, like putting a man on the moon. If we all get behind these efforts to protect and restore ecosystems, there is no telling what we might achieve.

 

It’s admirable how much you have achieved at such a young age. Would you tell us about your self motivation and those who inspired you?

I love biodiversity and nature. But I was never particularly ambitious to succeed in research. I have always just tried to enjoy my work and to collaborate with friends who also enjoy their work. I think that, when you are enjoying your work,  that is when you are the most productive and successful and have been so lucky that I have been able to direct those efforts towards working on something that I love.

 

Our readers are mainly the youth in different parts of the world who quite certainly look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

When you find the thing you really enjoy doing, anything is possible.

I am convinced that, when you find the thing you really enjoy doing, anything is possible. And that is so so much more enjoyable when you find good friends to work with. I am dyslexic, so I actually struggled with some parts of my studies in school and university. But I always knew that I loved biodiversity. And so I just kept focussing on what I enjoyed. And then over time, I learned that my friends enjoyed doing things that I didn’t. So we joined forces and shared tasks, which allowed us all to work together towards our collective goals, and enjoy the process along the way.

Photos: From the Archive of Professor Thomas Crowther, Shutterstock

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