After completing the building of the ‘Macrocosms’ Ecotron at the University of Hasselt, the University of Antwerpen is building 3 other platforms. Picture: Infrared image of a test on bare soil to provide different amounts of surface warming within the same Free-Air Temperature Increase (FATI) plot (photo©antwerpen university).
At the University of Antwerp, the construction of multiple AnaEE infrastructures is underway, after recent funding by the Flemish Government. An Ecotron at meso-scale is planned, while a FATI platform (Free-Air Temperature Increase) will be built to simulate climate extremes in the open air. Finally, an aquatic artificial river facility will be used to study the processes occurring in the riverine continuum, focusing on plant-current-biogeochemistry-morphology interactions.
Ecotrons are cutting-edge controlled environment facilities in which ecosystems can be exposed to multiple abiotic or biotic drivers. At the same time they can track the ecosystem’s responses to these drivers in real time with advanced automated measurement systems. As such they serve both as growth environment and “ecosystem analyzer”. A key application in ecotrons is the simulation of future climates. Air temperature, rainfall, air humidity, atmospheric CO2 concentrations and wind speed are all controlled. Our mesocosms ecotron complements existing facilities (e.g. Montpellier, Hasselt) by having a larger number of smaller units. The surplus in individual units compared to macro-scale ecotrons means more climate change factors can be imposed both as single factors and in various combinations. This is highly important, as combined changes may affect ecosystems differently than can be predicted from single factor effects, through synergistic or antagonistic interactions (1+1+1 ≠ 3).
This 12-unit system allows the experimental simulation of climate extremes (primarily heat waves and severe droughts) in ecosystems without enclosing them. Heat waves are simulated by supplying extra infrared (IR) radiation, while drought is simulated with automated rainout shelters. Each 7 m2 plot will be equipped with sensors that allow the calculation of the energy balance, required for the novel IR heater control system employed, also providing data that help to understand the functioning of the system. The plants studied in the plots should be short-statured (< 100 cm plant height), but otherwise the system allows full flexibility. Many small mesocosms, for example varying in composition and/or soil nutrients, can be installed within the plot, or researchers can opt to study one bigger patch of vegetation.
This river system will be part of the Mesodrome infrastructure. It is a controllable semi-natural system in which environmental and biological processes can be studied in relation to water movement on an ecologically relevant scale of complexity and time. This ‘flume’ facility is specifically adapted to overcome shortcomings in other facilities. Most of the existing wide flumes are shallow because they are designed to study water flow, often in combination with bathymetric changes, on a 2D scale. The lack of sufficient depth restricts the use of real vegetation and researchers have to manage with scaled replica's (e.g. alfalfa seedlings). Our flume will have sufficient depth to allow the use of real aquatic vegetation growing on suitable substrate in a sun-lit environment so that long-term experiments are possible. This longer time frame is needed to observe significant landscape changes due to plant-current interactions. Most flumes are either built for hydrodynamic studies (without sediment), or for geomorphologic studies (with sediment, but shallow). Combining both in this set-up enables us to examine the interaction between biota, current and geomorphology in a realistic environment where the sediment allows for a natural root system to develop, providing sufficient anchorage against the stream velocity.