A whole biome ablaze?

And it burns, burns, burns,
The ring of fire, the ring of fire.

Mediterranean forests are burning.
All of a sudden, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece… fires – sometimes large, out-of-control, deadly wildfires – are burning all over Mediterranean forest ecosystems.

Hot temperatures, little rainfall, strong winds, and a dense human population: all factors are there for the perfect firestorm. If this is what climate change has in store for us, well, the outlook for Mediterranean forests is bleak.


Besides stopping climate change (ha ha ha!) and fencing humans out of forests (unlikely to work, either) what can be done?

There is only one word: MANAGEMENT (the alternative is: ashes).

My lab‘s director, Eric Rigolot, has provided some clues  in an interview (in French) with the French Huffington Post website. What does he say? That we have to use managed fires to prevent big, uncontrolled wildfires. This technique is current in other continents, but not in Europe.

I would add: vegetation itself (the fuel) must be managed in ways that minimise fire expansion, if not ignition. This is particularly true where human beings are likely to wander, because they are most of the time, albeit often unconsciously, the source of fires.

Forests must be tended to, must be gardened. In Europe, they’ve stopped being wilderness a long time ago, so the potential argument that, by managing forests, we alter some fancy natural equilibrium, is nonsense. It is maybe valid for some truly pristine biomes (if there is any), but not in Europe, not around the Mediterranean basin.

This means we are responsible for the health of our forests, including by limiting the effects of fires that we are the primary cause of.

Firs are dying, beeches are almost fine, but for how long?

Going through and iconic mountain forest in Southern Europe leaves little hope for what is coming next.

Yesterday I was on Mont Ventoux (Southern France) to sample beech leaves for the BEECHGENOMES project.


One can see the silver firs dying there (at around 900 m a.s.l.). The understory shows the occasional fir (and more commonly, beech) sapling and seedling, but what mostly grows there is a shrub, boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), and even boxwood, when it grows in a gap, does not fare so well. What will be left of the beautiful Ventoux forest in 30 years?


Out of 166 adult beech trees belonging to the long-term survey cohort, we’ve found “only” nine dead (“only nine”!? that’s 5.4%… and the last check was only few years ago). Most of the others looked fine with no visible sign of stress, but this year, with so little rainfall and many strong heatwaves, they are likely to shed their leaves early August. Growing season over.

Not very happy, my goodness.


Of budgets and schedules

You know perfectly your grant proposal’s cost per nucleotide and per fieldwork day. But did you budget data analyses?

Once again, I had to write a project’s final report. Once again, I found myself writing that ‘data have been produced, and we are carrying out data analyses’. This seems to be accepted as consolidated report. Nobody expects that, when the project is over, the data have been analysed. Yet, we all obviously claim that science is not about accumulating data, but producing and interpreting results*.


Why do we take it as granted that a research program is complete without data analyses? The answser is ridicously simple: it is because we seldom schedule or budget data analyses. In our unconscious mechanistic-positivist-reductionist-platonian mindset (yes, you too you have such a mindset. You were raised like this, as a scientist), data analyses automatically derive from first principles, so they cost no time and no effort; they are an instantaneous act of revelation of patterns and laws from the data.

This reminds me of the joke, common among physicists, about the mathematician who dies of starvation because he never actually cooks his meals: once he has verified that all ingredients are in the cupboards, he considers that the meal is done. So he never eats. [I do not think mathematicians are like this. Physicists, especially experimental physicists, do].

But when we think again, we perfectly know that there is no such thing as instantaneous, self-organising data analysis. Data analyses cost “blood, toil, tears and sweat and enormous amounts of time and money (think not only computers and licence fees, but also salaries).


Since I have stopped spending my days doing silly things like pouring acrylamide gels and scoring bands on an X-ray film or even peak profiles on a screen (that’s a long time ago, luckily), data analyses take about 80% of my working time (not counting for grant proposal writing, paper writing, emptying the coffee room compost tank, and writing blog posts about time spent writing blog posts).

It should be obvious to all, but a project is only over when (at least) data analyses are over. To achieve this feat, we first need to honestly schedule data analyses.

So atone, you sinner, and go back correctly scheduling the next six months of your activities.


*The publication of ‘data papers’ is becoming current, but this is a different matter: the need to publish stand-alone data sets highlights even more the need to make them available to a larger community, so that they can be more easily analysed.