Good News in a Bad Year

Congrats! We’ve nearly made it to the end of a particularly challenging and exhausting year. For many, bad news – about a pandemic, political unrests, huge wildfires and as always, climate change – was even more part and parcel of their daily media consumption. But: not all is bleak. The Crowther Lab always tries to uncover and highlight hopeful and inspiring stories. So, here’s a list of recommended movies, podcasts and news articles that we’re featured in to end your year on a positive note. Some you might have already seen, but others may be worth a click now. 😉 Wishing you happy holidays and a pleasant end to 2020!

Documentaries and TV-Series

Can We Cool the Planet? – PBS Nova

We need thousands of solutions if we want to tackle climate change.

– Constantin Zohner, Can We Cool the Planet?

And guess what? These solutions do exist! Scientists all over the world are working hard to improve technologies and find new ways of drawing down or repurposing carbon from our atmosphere. PBS Nova’s Can We Cool the Planet? takes a look at the latest advances to mitigate climate change – from direct air capture to geoengineering, to carbon neutral fuel and nature based solutions (represented by Tom Crowther, Constantin and Johan from our lab). This documentary has super fascinating insights, a hopeful tone and great explainers. What it doesn’t have? A bleak perspective, that’s for sure!

The Age of Nature – PBS

Want to learn more about nature-based solutions? Look no further: Changing, the third episode of The Age of Nature is a great start into the topic. Equipped with gorgeous visuals, this documentary explores in which ways we can work with nature to bring back biodiversity and help mitigate climate change. From the forests of Bhutan to Tom Crowther in our lab, and from Borneo’s peatland forests to Belize’s coral reefs and Antarctica’s marine life: The Age of Nature highlights all nature does for us – and what we need to protect and restore it and its biodiversity.

Alien Worlds – Netflix

What could life look like on other planets? Netflix’ Alien Worlds explores just this question. A mix of sci-fi and documentary, the series takes a closer look at what we know about how life works on our planet – and how that knowledge might be applied to other worlds out there. Our favourite, of course, is episode 3, Eden. Among other things, Tom Crowther takes you on a walk in Scotland’s Rothiemurchus Forest to take a look at the soil beneath our feet to explain the fascinating role fungi and mycelial networks play in ecosystems. What’s that? Watch to find out!

Our lab's Tom Crowther in Netflix' Alien Worlds, looking for mycelial networks below ground!
Our lab’s Tom Crowther in Netflix’ Alien Worlds, looking for mycelial networks below ground!

News Articles

AI and machine learning constitute an enormous opportunity for scientists.

– Tom Crowther, Naratek Daily

As a global ecology lab, our main approach to better understand and address climate change is simple: look at data. Especially, big data. In an interview with Naratek Daily this spring, Tom talks about the importance of machine learning for our work at ETH Zurich and how we apply it to studying soils and forest ecosystems.

Our latest application of machine learning: building a new model, based on over 430’000 observations and our own experiments, to find out how climate change is affecting autumn onset and the leaf senescence of deciduous trees. As co-lead author Constantin Zohner explains in the Guardian and Inside Climate News autumn may, contrary to previous research, advance by 3-6 days by the end of the century. What does that mean? How is it connected to a self-regulating mechanism in trees? And what avenues does our study open for future research? Read the articles or check our summary on to find out!

Constantin Zohner, phenology expert at the Crowther Lab, checking up on an experiment. on the ETH Zürich terrace.
Constantin Zohner, phenology expert at the Crowther Lab, checking up on an experiment on an ETH Zurich terrace.

On the topic of trees: since the publication of our study on the global tree restoration potential in 2019, we have witnessed a growing interest in ecosystem restoration to help tackle the climate crisis. Indeed, conserving and restoring our ecosystems brings benefits beyond climate change mitigation. As Tom explains in the Financial Times agroforestry, for example, may result in improved agricultural yields. But of course, restoration has to be done right – that is in ecologically and socially responsible ways. And always in addition to cutting emissions, as we emphasise in this Rolling Stone article.

If tree planting is just used as an excuse to avoid cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, then it could be a real disaster.

– Tom Crowther, Rolling Stone

If you’re up for a longer read, we also recommend reading this article in The Washington Post. It covers the challenges of restoration but also shows why, despite them all, it is still an approach very much worth pursuing!

Restoring ecosystems also means restoring biodiversity. But what is biodiversity actually? How come there is so much of it in nature? If you ever wanted to learn more about biodiversity, this in-depth article in Quanta Magazine is one to check out – with great explainers from the Crowther Lab’s Dan Maynard and several other scientists on what biodiversity has to do with rock-paper-scissor games!

Collaboration, not competition, however, is the focus of this Science write-up all about the value of mycorrhizal networks of fungi for terrestrial ecosystems and how they’re affected by climate change. The article features several studies, including that of our lab’s Colin Averill, that showcase varying scenarios of how mycorrhizal associations may deprive trees of nutrients or support their drought resilience. All depends on a combination of factors involved – and on more research of what goes on below ground in the soil!


Episode 53: The Power of Nature – Outrage and Optimism Podcast

I’m fine if it’s really hard for us to achieve it. But if we are just going to give up before we even started, then that’s devastating.

– Tom Crowther, Outrage and Optimism Podcast

Prefer listening to podcasts instead of reading? No problem! Earlier this year, Tom Crowther talked with Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac and Paul Dickinson, hosts of the Outrage and Optimism podcast all about the power of nature-based solutions to tackle climate change. It’s a great episode that covers the value of scientific collaborations, the delicate balance of communicating science, the global restoration movement and how to positively cope with our fear of greenwashing. Give it a listen!

Episode 3: Why the world needs another trillion trees – House on Fire Podcast

Tree restoration has gained momentum as one of several ways to mitigate climate change. But restoring trees is not a simple one-time event: it takes time and care and goes beyond mere tree-planting. So how should we restore one trillion trees then? What kind of challenges may we run into? And how can we overcome them? Tom Crowther, Karen Holl, Pedro Brancalion and other ecology, forestry and restoration experts weigh in on an interesting conversation about the importance of biodiversity, the problem of deforestation, how to make use of natural regeneration and the need for local participation. A half hour well spent! Listen here to the House on Fire podcast.


The global restoration movement, machine learning, ecology and the power of collaboration: they all come together in Tom Crowther’s personal and inspiring talk at the launch event of TED Countdown! In an ode to the magic of biodiversity and networks, Tom elaborates on why we need to protect and restore our damaged ecosystems – not only to tackle climate change but also for the many other environmental, social and economic benefits ecosystems provide us with. One way to go forward in the future is with Restor, a new collaborative, open-data platform of ecological insights that we are excited to launch in 2021. Get a first glimpse of Restor in Tom’s speech.

One of our favourite talks this year: Tom Crowther at TED Countdown
One of our favourite talks this year: Tom Crowther at TED Countdown