ASU scientists study the response of tropical forests to climate change

Findings could help inform forest management


May 17, 2022

Beneath green canopies of towering trees, vivid colors flash by on outstretched wings, while underfoot, a small green tree frog leaps onto a large leaf. In the distance, a chimpanzee reaches for a fruit hanging above his head. This is a tropical forest, rich with life and teeming with biodiversity.

While covering only about 6% of the Earth’s surface, tropical forests support more than 80% of the world’s documented species. And these ecosystems are one of the oldest on the planet. Yet human development and a changing climate threaten the forests’ ability to function properly.  Chart with illustrations depicting global predictions of functional diversity across tropical and subtropical, dry and moist broadleaf forests. Global predictions of functional diversity across tropical and subtropical, dry and moist broadleaf forests. Reprinted from “Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change,” by J. A.Gutiérrez, 2022, Nature Ecology and Evolution. Download Full Image

To protect and restore tropical rainforests, Arizona State University researchers joined a study led by Oxford University to uncover critical information about the forests and their ability to respond to the impacts of climate change. 

The study looked at functional diversity, or the range of functional traits that an ecosystem needs to operate. In the study, published May 16 in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the team of researchers mapped out the functional diversity of forests. The findings demonstrate that drier forests are less functionally diverse, meaning that they may be less resilient in the face of increasing droughts.

“For thousands of trees distributed all across the tropics, we collected information of certain characteristics that allow them to respond to changes in the environment, such as increasing droughts, which we call ‘functional traits,'” said Jesús Aguirre-Gutiérrez, lead author of the study and senior researcher with the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “Using this information, we built models to understand if and how the diversity of functional traits increases the resilience of forests to climate change.”

Spanning 74 sites and four continents, the team used local climate data for the past 50 years combined with data on 16 different plant traits sampled from 2,461 individual trees. This combination of data allowed the team to gain a big picture view of the forest changes, specifically how the forests’ responses to climate change differ based on the dryness of the ecosystem. Overall, drier tropical forests are less functionally diverse and more functionally redundant — many species perform the same roles. 

“This research informs conservation efforts by identifying regions more susceptible to climate change, allowing managers and policymakers to take more targeted and educated action,” said Greg Asner, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. “We must discover where and how to invest for long term ecosystem resilience.”

Makenna Flynn

Communications Specialist, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

ASU Law spring graduates committed to public service


May 17, 2022

Drawing inspiration to pursue his Juris Doctor (JD) from an attorney who helped his family and his mother, an aspiring small business owner, first-generation student Jonathan Chavez knew that earning the JD would position him to give back in ways that make a direct impact on people’s lives.

“That attorney changed our life,” he said. “Simply knowing the laws, telling (my mother) what to do and helping her in that way, had such an impact on me that from there on, I wanted to help people understand the law.” ASU Law Juris Doctor spring 2022 graduates. ASU Law Juris Doctor spring 2022 graduates. Download Full Image

Chavez exemplifies the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and its namesake, Justice O’Connor, whose legacy of breaking down barriers, serving the public and upholding the rule of law continues to inspire ASU Law students today. He joins the more than 450 ASU Law degree candidates who came together on May 11 at the college’s spring 2022 convocation ceremony to celebrate their hard-earned accomplishments.

ASU Law conferred degrees to Juris Doctor, Master of Legal Studies (MLS), Master of Human Resources and Employment Law (MHREL), Master of Sports Law and Business (MSLB) and Master of Laws (LLM) candidates.

ASU Law also welcomed back graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 and recognized the first MHREL graduating class during the ceremony.

“Today, you have reached a level of education that very few in this country or the history of the world have ever reached,” Co-Interim Dean Adam Chodorow said. “You should be proud of all you have accomplished.”

The graduates were joined by two distinguished speakers and ASU Law alums, MLS convocation speaker Judge Roslyn O. Silver and JD convocation speaker Ambassador Harriet "Hattie" C. Babbitt.

“When I entered the Arizona State University law school, the beautiful and new law school, with only four other women, we became good friends,” Silver said.

Silver, a senior United States district judge, was the first woman appointed in the Phoenix Division, the second woman appointed in the District of Arizona, and later became the first woman to serve as chief judge for the District of Arizona. 

Since then, Silver noted, the legal field has experienced extraordinary changes, including when O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“On the first Monday in October of this year, almost 50% of the Supreme Court Justices will be women,” Silver said. “There will be four women seated on the Supreme Court of the United States, and 13 years ago, the first Hispanic was appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And as we all know, on the first Monday in October, the first Black woman will be on the bench, sitting with everyone else, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.”

ASU Law has created an inclusive community that celebrates diverse backgrounds and perspectives, with a strong commitment to service. First-generation graduate Ashlyn Saenz-Ochoa knows firsthand the value of diverse experiences and the importance of having diverse voices the courtroom.

“We need those who have diverse experiences representing people,” she said. “Really, law is law, but it’s about humanity because it affects humans. When you have lived experiences among law students, it enhances the law, it brings it to life.”

As part of the third graduating class and one of the few female students at the time, as well as one of the first students in William C. Canby’s Indian Law seminar, Babbitt also addressed the graduates. She shared her thoughts about ASU Law, the practice of law, the practice of life and what O’Connor’s legacy can teach everyone about those things.

“From day one, the law school stressed civic responsibility and the importance of being of service to the community,” she said.

Babbitt holds a distinguished record in both private practice and public service and served as U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States and as the Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

It’s a responsibility Babbitt has carried with her since graduating from ASU Law, and a commitment that ASU Law students continue to model.

During their time attending ASU Law, the spring 2022 class participated in a total of more than 100,000 hours of externship work and nearly 20,000 hours of pro bono work in a variety of legal fields.

“On a good day in practicing law, you have to marvel that someone is paying you to learn about a totally new area of life and law,” Babbitt said. “Learning how to break down unfamiliar material and to understand it is one of the great gifts of legal training.”

The journey to a law degree is hardly an easy path. There are moments of struggle, angst and doubt. There are also moments of victory, success and triumph. This May, students finished that journey as accomplished legal professionals.

“Sandra Day O’Connor revered the law and celebrated life,” Babbitt said. “I urge you to model Justice O’Connor’s enthusiasm for law and for life. May all of you be fortunate enough to find a future that includes a reverence for the rule of law, an enthusiasm for a practice of life and a commitment to public service.”

Meenah Rincon

Communications Manager, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law