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Forest litterfall–developing an open global database to address ecological questions


Doug Schaefer, Gbadamassi Dossa, Jill Thompson

Kunming Institute of Botany



Session Description

Global forest litterfall (GLF) accounts for most of forest net primary productivity and are widely measured, but their overall amounts and patterns remain poorly described.

      Beyond carbon, LF is the main nutrient return pathway to forest soils. Beyond chemical nutrients, LF illuminates interactions between forests and their current physical and microbial environments. Beyond 'now', LF illuminates forests and ecosystem processes as forests change through forest management, disturbance and recovery, forest community composition, and future climates.

      The most recent assessments of global litterfall (Shen et al. 2019, Li et al. 2019) suggest that LF flux differs by a factor of two, and we need to understand what drives these differences in flux estimates. We can explore a wide range of ecological questions by comparing LF to other geospatial patterns. Current global carbon models ignore spatial patterns of LF, and future remote-sensing missions will benefit from a better understanding of global LF patterns that ILTER and others can provide.

      ILTER forest sites measure LF, but not all sites have published their information. All global LF data remains to be assembled, and used to address ecological questions across scales. This session will consider environmental, chemical and ecological relationships with LF quantity, quality and distribution patterns, and the potential impacts of global climate change on nutrient cycling and biodiversity. Other global databases will help us to explore, for example, the effects of forest diversity, recent forest disturbances and climate changes on LF, and the relationships between mycorrhizae and LF, and between forest functional traits and LF. We will also consider other ecological questions raised by the participants.

      For this session, we invite ILTER scientists measuring LF to describe their research, and to expand our knowledge of the ecological significance of LF. We will also discuss methods for data extraction, exchange and synthesis, and plan how we can use data collected at ILTER and other sites to address ecological questions of global importance. This session will greatly improve our understanding of the importance and insights into global drivers of LF.


Li S, Yuan W, Ciais P, Viovy N, Ito A, Jia B, Zhu D. 2019. Benchmark estimates for aboveground litterfall data derived from ecosystem models. Environ. Res. Lett. 14: 084020


Shen G, Chen D, Wu Y, Liu L, Liu C. 2019. Spatial patterns and estimates of global forest litterfall. Ecosphere 10(2): e02587. DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2587


Session Justification

The recent reviews (Shen et al. 2019 and Li et al. 2019) of global forest litterfall (LF) assembled data from more than a thousand sources, but did not explore the ecological significance of LF. We are already expanding those efforts by searching more recent publications, using an automated tool (LitSearchR) to discover data from publications missed by traditional English language keyword searching, and looking for unpublished data. We anticipate including data from many more sources.

      We intend this session to bring together ILTER researchers measuring forest LF, to show how their individual site-based measurements can contribute to a global LF synthesis effort. We are particularly keen to invite scientists with unpublished forest LF data to contribute to the symposium, and to find ways to develop collaborations for the user-friendly global database we are developing.

      This ILTER session in 2024 will improve connections and collaboration among ILTER researchers, improve LF data-sharing methods, develop a comprehensive global database of forest LF for data synthesis, and discuss how to address important ecological questions. We anticipate that ILTER participants will have additional ideas to add value to this LF synthesis.

      This session relates to topical themes 1, 4, and 5, but we selected ‘other’.


One Sentence Session Summary

ILTER and other sites measuring forest litterfall are invited to share their research, to help create a comprehensive database with global coverage that will be used for understanding aspects of forest ecology and the effects of climate change.


Special Session

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