My research concerns the global terrestrial biosphere and its dynamic interactions with the atmosphere and climate. Much of my research centres on the modelling of ecosystem processes by scaling up from processes at the level of plants and soil micro-organisms to describe the large-scale exchanges of water, carbon dioxide and trace gases between the atmosphere and land. I was a pioneer of the development of global plant geography models (as the leader of the team that developed the BIOME family of models) and, since then, the development of global models to represent vegetation dynamics (the LPJ and LPX models).
My present research is informed by the need for a next generation of ecosystem and land surface models, underpinned by the development of new foundations for ecosystem science. Next-generation process-based models will make it possible to describe and forecast the responses of plants and ecosystems to atmospheric composition and climate and to foresee potential changes in crop yields and the suitability of different crops and agricultural systems in different regions. As Chair of the AXA Programme in Biosphere and Climate Impacts my objectives were to apply robust, quantitative knowledge about the impacts and risks of climate variability and change as they affect terrestrial ecosystems (natural, semi-natural and managed, including forestry and agriculture) and their interactions with climate.
My current role as leader of the REALM project, ‘Reinventing Ecosystem and Land-surface Models’, is to apply eco-evolutionary optimality concepts to develop and test new quantitative theory for plant and ecosystem function and land-atmosphere exchanges of energy, water and carbon dioxide. Making use of huge recent advances in data availability, the goal is to develop more robust and reliable numerical modelling of land processes in the Earth System which integrate functional biology. This project is funded for five years by the European Research Council (ERC) (https://prenticeclimategroup.wordpress.com/realm-team/).
As director of the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society, I will coordinate this this 10-year transdisciplinary project will be a collaborative effort with four other Associate Directors from three other universities that bring in unparalleled, complementary expertise on remote sensing, palaeofires, and the societal dimensions of fire. The aim is to not only lay the groundwork for a new, integrative science of wildfires, but also develop a new global theory of fire, create the capacity to model wildfire risks and dynamics, and help communities to live sustainably with fire (https://prenticeclimategroup.wordpress.com/leverhulme-wildfires-centre/)
I foresee a tremendous opportunity for progress in integrative research in this field, bringing in information from across several different domains of science. This research is already beginning to move the land biosphere modelling enterprise ahead of current global vegetation models and forestry and crop models, which are for the most part based on the state of knowledge circa 1990. Key achievements to date are the development from first principles of a quantitative model for the CO2 drawdown across the leaves of C3 plants, and the demonstration that it correctly predicts observed quantitative relationships between the stable carbon isotope composition of leaves and environmental factors (atmospheric dryness, growth temperature and altitude); and its application to generate a model for gross primary production, which rivals the performance of comparable models with many more parameters. Both these applications can dispense with distinctions among 'plant functional types', as single equations have been shown to be applicable across all C3 plants; thereby making modelling considerably simpler, and requiring far fewer unknown parameters to be specified.
National and International Projects
I am the Chair of the AXA Programme in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, which is financed by the AXA Research Fund, a world-wide initiative of scientific philanthropy supported by the global insurance group AXA. I am also Chair of the Australian Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network facility e-MAST (ecosystem Modelling and Scaling infrasTructure), having formerly been the Director, and a member of the executive advisory committee of TERN.
I was formerly Leader of the NERC-funded QUEST (Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System) research programme until its completion in September 2010, and senior editor of the book Earth System Science for Application emerging from QUEST. I was co-chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Analysis, Integration and Modelling of the Earth System (AIMES) project and a member of the IGBP Scientific Committee up to 2010, and chaired the AIMES Open Science Conference in May 2010. I have been a subject editor of Global Change Biology and was until recently on the editorial boards of both Climate Dynamics and Environmental Science and Policy. I was a principal investigator of the US National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis Working Group on Benchmarking ecosystem response models with experimental data from long-term CO2 enrichment experiments. I was co-ordinating lead author of the chapter Carbon cycle and atmospheric carbon dioxide in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have been a reviewer for both Working Groups 1 and 2 in the IPCC Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports.
- Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (2018)
- One of the Wold's Most Influential Scientific Minds (Thomson Reuters) (2014);
- IPCC Third Assessment Report: (2001) a?? Convening lead author for a??The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2a??. The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and I received a certificate for my contribution;
- Highly Cited Author (Thomson ISI) (2002);
- Milutin Milankovitch Medal (European Geophysical Society) (2002) for "oustanding contributions in modelling the terrestrial biosphere as an interactive component of our Earth system'.
- High-End Foreign Expert, Tsinghua University, Beijing (2018-2020);
- Honorary Professor in Ecology and Evolution, Macquarie University (2018-2023);
- High-End Foreign Expert, North West Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling (China) (2015-2018);
- Chair of Ecosystem Modelling and Scaling Infrastructure Facility, Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (Australia) (2011-).