Tropical forests are centers of global biodiversity and integral parts of the global water and biogeochemical cycles. They play a key role in global climate control and terrestrial carbon sequestration, and are indispensable as reservoirs of terrestrial organic carbon and biodiversity. They continue to be reduced due to land use change and are impacted by climate and atmospheric change, with significant impacts on the diversity of species and the functional integrity of these ecosystems. Tropical forests are highly heterogeneous in terms of prevailing climate, soils and disturbance status, with strong repercussions on their biogeochemical functioning. How they will respond to future global changes can to date only be studied by extrapolation from historical studies of ecosystem properties, forest structure, biomass and tree growth or from manipulative experiments. The lack of knowledge and of robust tropical forest data does not allow any conclusive interpolation of trends into the future. The available evidence nonetheless points to strong responses of tropical forests to global changes, most of them being negative in terms of carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and biodiversity, indicating that they will rather feed forward on global warming and atmospheric change. Due to the extraordinarily high biodiversity and structural and biogeochemical heterogeneity of tropical forests, experimental manipulations in tropical forests simulating global changes are scarce or have not been undertaken at all. To study responses of tropical trees and ecosystems to past and current global changes we therefore rely on proxy studies such as isotopes in tree rings, long-term time series of net primary production across interannual variations in climate, large transect studies or meta-analyses synthesizing tropical forest responses across large gradients in climate and soil fertility. Our studies here rely on a suite of such approaches, ranging from reconstructions of tree growth and physiology using tree ring and herbarium analyses with stable isotope measurements, to long-term observations of the relation between forest productivity and climate, meta-analyses, large biodiversity – ecosystem function experiments in reforestation trials and to manipulative experiments with nutrient addition to advance our understanding of nutrient limitation to tropical forest functioning.
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