Dan Friess - Award for Excellent Researcher 2017

Associate Professor Dan Friess (Department of Geography) recently received the FASS Award for Excellent Researcher (AER) which is presented to researchers based on the overall impact and strength of their research. The successful researcher would have “achieved consistent research excellence, produced a piece of research of great impact and be recognised by the research community as having achieved a significant breakthrough.”

Dan's research focuses on threats to tropical coastal habitats and is based on three interdisciplinary themes: 1) quantifying ecosystem services; 2) habitat loss due to sea level rise; and 3) habitat loss due to deforestation. He concentrates on human-environment interactions in the coastal zone, particularly tropical mangrove forests. Dan is interested in the benefits (ecosystem services) that mangroves provide to human populations, and the threats that mangroves face, such as sea level rise and deforestation due to development and agriculture. His work on sea level rise and deforestation in Southeast Asia has been published in high impact journals such as Nature, Nature Climate Change, Biological Reviews, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Conservation Biology, Biological Conservation, Global Ecology, Biogeography, Global Environmental Change and Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Find out more about Dan's projects at The Mangrove Lab.

Dan was recently awarded (as lead PI, joint with Singapore-ETH Centre) ~SG$4.8 million by the National Research Foundation to conduct a Singapore Ecosystem Services Assessment, where the benefits provided by Singapore’s environment and how ecosystem services will change with development are quantified. The output of this is a planning document and decision support tool to aid land use planning.

We congratulated Dan and spoke to him about his research work.


Congratulations on receiving the Award for Excellent Researcher, Dan! How did you and your team come to develop the research plan for the Singapore Ecosystem Services Assessment?

Between 2014 and 2017 we were funded by the Ministry of Education to undertake a project that quantified several ecosystem services of mangrove forests, and then projected their fate under future land use scenarios. Through this project we came up with some novel techniques to measure ecosystem services such as carbon, fisheries, and cultural values. This project proved to be a kind of pilot study for our broader Singapore Natural Capital Assessment, which takes a similar approach for all ecosystems in Singapore, projects their distribution under scenarios such as the Master Plan, and provides a decision support tool for decision makers to use to test future land use scenarios.


Could you discuss the term ‘Natural Capital’ that the Ecosystem Services Assessment aims to quantify? Could you also elaborate on the term ‘Ecosystem Services’ and its relationship to ‘Natural Capital’? What is the history behind these terms?

‘Ecosystem Services’ are the direct and indirect benefits that natural habitats provide to people. It is a term that was first coined in the early 1980s, though arguably we’ve been using the concept in management for more than a hundred years. ‘Natural Capital’ refers to abiotic (physical) and biotic (biological) assets that contribute to economic output and social wellbeing. These assets encompass ecosystem services, alongside other parts of the environment that help produce ecosystem services.


What are the challenges of carrying out an Ecosystem Services Assessment in Singapore?

National-scale Assessments are increasingly being conducted in Europe (such as the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment), but we are one of the first to conduct such an assessment in the urban tropics. This poses two major challenges: firstly, our knowledge of tropical urban ecosystem services is quite low compared to other parts of the world, so we need to increase this baseline. Secondly, conducting an assessment in an urban area is much harder than an equivalent national assessment in a larger country with more rural areas. This is because Singapore’s urban landscape is very heterogeneous, so ecosystems are mixed up in close proximity to each other, and boundaries between ecosystems are fuzzy. This is a huge challenge for mapping and monitoring, but provides us with a unique opportunity to show that ecosystem services assessments can be achieved at a variety of scales.


The project will produce a tool for policy makers that will incorporate ecosystem services into land use planning. How could this tool be modified for use beyond Singapore?

The project will provide a framework for the assessment of tropical urban Natural Capital. This framework should provide a tool kit that is applicable enough that it could be taken and applied to any other comparable tropical urban setting.


The 2016 article ‘Rates and drivers of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia, 2000-2012’, co-authored with Dr Dan Richards in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, discusses the novel remote sensing analysis you undertook to quantify the key causes of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2012. How did you develop this new method of conducting remote sensing analysis?

We took advantage of some new global datasets that had recently become available. Firstly, researchers at the United States Geological Survey had produced a global mangrove map, so we knew where mangroves were found. Secondly, researchers at the University of Maryland had created a dataset of global forest loss from 2000 to 2012. We merged these datasets to show where mangroves had been lost, and then we looked at what each patch of lost mangrove (40 000 patches!) had been converted into. From this, we could tell if mangroves had been lost to aquaculture, rice, oil palm or urban development.


You indicate that prior to this research, most researchers, NGOs and policy makers were under the assumption that mangroves were being lost at 1-3% per year, and you showed that in fact deforestation rates had reduced substantially to ~0.18% per year. Why was this assumption taken for granted? In addition, your research revealed that oil palm was a regional deforestation driver – how much did this come as a surprise?

This assumption was present because those were the only statistics available at the time. They had been produced 10-20 years ago, and were best guesses based on a literature review of previous (smaller scale) studies. These numbers kept getting cited and recycled in the literature, without much critical thought. Our study, along with another global study published in 2016, were some of the first to quantitatively map regional and global mangrove change for the 21st century, and showed that the real rates were now almost an order of magnitude lower. This is due to many things such as aquaculture intensification, changing land uses, and the successful implementation of government conservation policies. But we still have more to do!

Oil palm as a driver of mangrove loss came as a surprise, as we never talk about it in academic circles. But when we contacted NGOs on the ground and newspaper articles, we found a lot of evidence that this was a fairly common cause of mangrove deforestation. We are happy that our study has highlighted this and has been able to communicate it to other researchers and to the policy arena.


Could you tell us about your upcoming book, Ecosystem Services of Mangrove Forests, due to be published by Routledge in 2019? What can readers expect?

Our knowledge of mangrove ecosystem services is spread across so many disciplines – geography, ecology, conservation science, chemistry, economics and policy. This book aims to bring all of this knowledge together in one place to provide a comprehensive overview. It also has several chapters on mangrove conservation and policy, and how ecosystem services can contribute to this. So I hope that it will be of interest to practitioners and decision makers, as well as students and mangrove researchers.


Lastly, what are your future research projects and plans?

My future plans are to continue highlighting the importance of ecosystem services in Southeast Asia. We’ll be doing this through the Singapore Natural Capital Project, but also through continuing studies of mangroves in the region. My ultimate aim is to have applied, as well as conceptual impact in this field.


Thank you, Dan. We wish you well in your future projects.

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