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The Ever-Increasing Productivity of Amazonian Forests: Fact or Artifact?
Gloor, M., Phillips, O.L., Lloyd, J.J., Lewis, S.L., Malhi, Y., Baker, T.R., Lopez-Gonzalez, G., Peacock, J., Almeida, S., Alves de Oliveira, A.C., Alvarez, E., Amaral, I., Arroyo, L, Aymard, G., Banki, O., Blanc, L., Bonal, D., Brando, P., Chao, K.-J., Chave, J., Davila, N., Erwin, T., Silva, J., DiFiore, A., Feldpausch, T.R., Freitzs, A., Herrera, R., Higuchi, N., Honorio, E., Jimenez, E., Killeen, T., Laurance, W., Mendoza, C., Monteagudo, A., Andrade, A. Neill, D., Nepstad, D., Nunez Vargas, P., Penuela, M.C., Pena Cruz, A., Prieto, A., Pitman, N., Quesada, C., Salomao, R., Silveira, M., Schwarz, M., Stropp, J., Ramirez, F., Ramirez, H., Rudas, A., ter Steege, H., Silva, N., Torres, A., Terborgh, J., Vasquez, R. and van der Heijden, G. 2009. Does the disturbance hypothesis explain the biomass increase in basin-wide Amazon forest plot data? Global Change Biology 15: 2418-2430.

The authors write that "analysis of earlier tropical plot data has suggested that large-scale changes in forest dynamics are currently occurring in Amazonia (Phillips and Gentry, 1994; Phillips et al., 2004), and that an increase in aboveground biomass has occurred, with increases in mortality tending to lag increases in growth (Phillips et al., 1998; Baker et al., 2004a,b; Lewis et al., 2004)." However, they state that this conclusion has recently been challenged by an overzealous application of the "Slow in, Rapid out" dictum, which relates to the fact that forest growth is a slow process, whereas mortality can be dramatic and singular in time, such that sampling over relatively short observation periods may miss these more severe events, leading to positively-biased estimates of aboveground biomass trends, when either no trend or negative trends actually exist.

What was done
Gloor et al. statistically characterize "the disturbance process in Amazon old-growth forests as recorded in 135 forest plots of the RAINFOR network up to 2006, and other independent research programs, and explore the consequences of sampling artifacts using a data-based stochastic simulator."

What was learned
The researchers report that "over the observed range of annual aboveground biomass losses, standard statistical tests show that the distribution of biomass losses through mortality follow an exponential or near-identical Weibull probability distribution and not a power law as assumed by others." In addition, they say that "the simulator was parameterized using both an exponential disturbance probability distribution as well as a mixed exponential-power law distribution to account for potential large-scale blow-down events," and that "in both cases, sampling biases turn out to be too small to explain the gains detected by the extended RAINFOR plot network."

What it means
Gloor et al. conclude that their results lend "further support to the notion that currently observed biomass gains for intact forests across the Amazon are actually occurring over large scales at the current time, presumably as a response to climate change," which in many of their earlier papers is explicitly stated to include the aerial fertilization effect of the historical increase in the air's CO2 content.

Baker, T.R., Phillips, O.L., Malhi, Y., Almeida, S., Arroyo, L., Di Fiore, A., Erwin, T., Higuchi, N., Killeen, T.J., Laurance, S.G., Laurance, W.F., Lewis, S.L., Monteagudo, A., Neill, D.A., Núñez Vargas, P., Pitman, N.C.A., Silva, J.N.M. and Vásquez Martínez, R. 2004a. Increasing biomass in Amazonian forest plots. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B - Biological Sciences 359: 353-365.

Baker, T.R., Phillips, O.L., Malhi, Y., Almeida, S., Arroyo, L., Di Fiore, A., Erwin, T., Killeen, T.J., Laurance, S.G., Laurance, W.F., Lewis, S.L., Lloyd, J., Monteagudo, A., Neil, D.A., Patiño, S., Pitman, N.C.A., Natalino, Silva, J.M. and Vásquez Martínez, R. 2004b. Variation in wood density determines spatial patterns in Amazonian forest biomass. Global Change Biology 10: 545-562.

Lewis, S.L., Phillips, O.L., Baker, T.R., Lloyd, J., Malhi, Y., Almeida, S., Higuchi, N., Laurance, W.F., Neill, D.A., Silva, J.N.M., Terborgh, J., Lezama, A.T., Vásquez Martinez, R., Brown, S., Chave, J., Kuebler, C., Núñez Vargas, P. and Vinceti, B. 2004. Concerted changes in tropical forest structure and dynamics: evidence from 50 South American long-term plots. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B - Biological Sciences 359: 421-436.

Phillips, O.L., Baker, T.R., Arroyo, L., Higuchi, N., Killeen, T.J., Laurance, W.F., Lewis, S.L., Lloyd, J., Malhi, Y., Monteagudo, A., Neill, D.A., Núñez Vargas, P., Silva, J.N.M., Terborgh, J., Vásquez Martínez, R., Alexiades, M., Almeida, S., Brown, S., Chave, J., Comiskey, J.A., Czimczik, C.I., Di Fiore, A., Erwin, T., Kuebler, C., Laurance, S.G., Nascimento, H.E.M., Olivier, J., Palacios, W., Patiño, S., Pitman, N.C.A., Quesada, C.A., Saldias, M., Torres Lezama, A., B. and Vinceti, B. 2004. Pattern and process in Amazon tree turnover: 1976-2001. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B - Biological Sciences 359: 381-407.

Phillips, O.L. and Gentry, A.H. 1994. Increasing turnover through time in tropical forests. Science 263: 954-958.

Phillips, O.L., Malhi, Y., Higuchi, N., Laurance, W.F., Nunez, P.V., Vasquez, R.M., Laurance, S.G., Ferreira, L.V., Stern, M., Brown, S. and Grace, J. 1998. Changes in the carbon balance of tropical forests: Evidence from long-term plots. Science 282: 439-442.

Reviewed 20 January 2010