How do plants react to climate change?

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The climate has a significant influence on the composition of plant growth and l
The climate has a significant influence on the composition of plant growth and life forms. For example: Herbs, grasses and deciduous trees that shed their leaves in winter grow in the temperate deciduous forest in Slovenia. Photo: Holger Kreft

Researchers develop new method for assessing climate change risks to ecosystems


Climate change is altering the earth’s ecosystems. In order to assess the risks, studies often calculate the extent to which regions are exposed to climatic changes in order to determine the threat to ecosystems. This approach may lead to false conclusions, as it ignores how living organisms react physiologically when, for example, the water content of the soil or the carbon dioxide content of the air changes. For this reason, researchers led by the University of Bayreuth and with the participation of the University of Göttingen have now investigated the consequences for the growth of over 135,000 plant species. Their modeling suggests that climate change - if left unchecked - will cause a profound shift in the Earth’s vegetation zones. It also shows where and how the growing conditions for plants will change. From this, insights can be derived for the management of ecosystems, but also for agriculture and forestry. The results were published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The researchers combined climate data with physiological models on the growth of over 135,000 species of vascular plants - flowering plants, gymnosperms, ferns and lycopods - as well as information on the growth form of these species. This enabled them to describe how suitable current and future climates are for plants that characterize the structure and function of the Earth’s ecosystems, such as deciduous trees, conifers, grasses and succulents. Researchers have termed this description of the climate from the perspective of these plant growth forms the phytoclimate.

An important component of the analyses was data on the growth forms and life forms of plants provided by researchers from the University of Göttingen. -For almost 15 years, we have been collecting information on the geographical distribution and ecological characteristics of plants and making it available to researchers in the Global Inventory of Floras and Traits (GIFT) database. Our data have helped to make this extensive modeling of numerous species worldwide possible," explains Holger Kreft from the Department of Biodiversity, Macroecology and Biogeography at the University of Göttingen. More information about the database can be found here:

The results show that, depending on the extent of future greenhouse gas emissions, 33 to 68 percent of the global land surface will experience a significant change in phytoclimate - the way in which the climate influences the formation of ecosystems - by 2070. The researchers also predict that new phytoclimates will form on 0.3 to 2.2 percent of the land surface and that 0.1 to 1.3 percent of today’s phytoclimates will disappear. In addition to these findings, the study provides more detailed information on where the phytoclimate will change the most and which phytoclimates will emerge or disappear.

-The geographical pattern of change, disappearance and novelty of phytoclimates differs significantly from the patterns of climate trends identified in previous studies-, reports first author Dr. Timo Conradi, plant ecologist at the University of Bayreuth. According to the researchers, in order to positively shape ecological change and preserve biodiversity, nature conservation strategies need to be realigned, especially in areas that are considered high-risk regions according to the study. Conradi emphasizes: -Our results also show that negative ecological consequences can be significantly mitigated by reducing greenhouse gases.

Original publication: Timo Conradi, Urs Eggli, Holger Kreft, Andreas H. Schweiger, Patrick Weigelt & Steven I. Higgins (2024): Reassessment of the risks of climate change for terrestrial ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559’024 -02333-8