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Plants are responding much faster to climate change than expected

When people think about the negative impacts of climate change, they normally think of species and plants becoming completely extinct, and whilst this is a huge problem, many plants are able to adapt their to warming temperatures. Whilst these shifts in behaviors are signs that a species is struggling to survive, they can also help to provide researchers with insights into the velocity of climate change as well as aid conservation planning. 

A new study from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island has explored exactly this concept, studying the vegetation cover across mountainous western North America and the way species are adapting to climate change. Study lead author James R. Keller and colleagues hypothesized that species were shifting their distribution north to higher elevations in order to recover their natural temperature range. 

This adaptive ability has not been well documented, but in an effort to better understand it, the researchers analyzed 27 years’ worth of high-resolution satellite elevation data from between 1984 and 2011 within nine North American mountain ranges. Based on the images, the experts were able to quantify vegetation cover changes at different altitudes across a wide range of tropical, subarctic, coastal, and desert ecosystems. 

The data clearly showed that across all studied ecosystems, upward shifts of vegetation toward higher elevations were ubiquitous, and occurred at rapid velocities. These velocities were identified to be significantly faster than the responses of animals to warming temperatures. 

However, further research will be needed to consider more recent data, as the satellite data collected did not include imaging from the last twelve years. Furthermore, the lack of data prior to 1984 makes it less certain for the researchers to confirm that vegetation distribution truly has a direct correlation with climate change. 

“Our findings help to characterize patterns of vegetation across elevations in mountains that range from the subtropics to the subarctic. If substantiated, this finding could warrant reconsideration of a current cornerstone of conservation planning,” wrote the researchers.

“More work is needed to better contextualize how the vegetation shifts we observed, which measure any green vegetation, relate to individual species movements and broader ecosystem transitions–as this sort of integration offers the potential to create a more holistic understanding of change in montane systems”.

The authors concluded by expressing their gratitude for the modern satellite imaging data that we take for granted today: “NASA satellites, in combination with powerful computing, provide a view of our planet like never before, giving us the ability to understand how natural ecosystems are responding to changes in the environment.”

The research findings have been published in the journal PLOS Climate.


By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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