Oppenheimer Programme in African Landscape Systems (OPALS)

Modelling resilience in landscape systems

The theme focuses on improving the relevance and value global land surface model predictions to African ecosystems and decision makers.

The majority of people living in Africa have a high level of dependence on nature, with ecosystems providing essential services and supporting livelihoods. The pressures on these socioenvironmental systems are increasing rapidly due to population growth, improving living standards and climate change (and other environmental challenges including invasive species). Comprehensive understanding of these socioenvironmental systems is needed to inform the decision-making processes at multiple levels to underpin sustainable development.

We rely on models to make informed predictions of the future. While all models are imperfect, they represent one of the most important tools available for understanding the essential services provided by ecosystems and how they are likely to change under different scenarios of population growth, resource consumption, land-use and climate change. At the same time, global land surface models are relatively poorly calibrated and validated for important African ecosystems, in part because Africa is systematically underrepresented in global collections of scientific data leading to gaps in the observations used to develop and refine theories and models of the natural world.

The largest activity within this theme is a doctoral student project focused on improving the ability of the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES) in simulating African landscapes, working with colleagues from the University of Exeter, the UK Meteorological Office and the African Climate and Development Institute at the University of Cape Town. This will include scenario modelling of ecosystem services and nature-based solutions, including water availability and carbon storage, to inform adaptive management decisions.

A second strand of activity in this theme involves collecting new observations on underreported aspects of African plants, including belowground biomass, to improve their representation in global databases and land surface models/predictions, working in partnership with the University of Botswana.

A third strand of activity will focus on tipping points in landscape-climate system responses in Africa, examining the capacity of environmental systems to support human activity in dryland landscapes subject to climate change.