Can the Sierra’s Trees Survive Global Warming?

MERCED - As California's climate changes, will plant populations adapt, migrate or face extinction?

An inter-institutional team of researchers led by Professor Lara Kueppers of UC Merced aims to find out, using a new, $2.97 million grant from the United States Department of Energy's Program for Ecosystem Research to set up experimental research plots in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Kueppers, the principal investigator on the project, and her colleagues from UC Berkeley, the University of Colorado, Idaho State University and the U.S. Forest Service will create manipulated-climate environments for growing two species of pine trees through their seedling stage, changing the temperature and moisture to see how the young trees respond to different conditions.

"As we face global climate change, one of the biggest ecological questions is how species will be reorganized," Kueppers said. "Species have ranges constrained by climate. We're hoping to determine how those ranges will be affected and whether species can respond to climate change fast enough to survive or need to migrate, since projected global warming is much faster than historical, natural changes."

Today, ecologists lack much experimental evidence on these kinds of questions. Projections for species' range shifts are made by computer models that must rely on a scarcity of field data. Kueppers and her colleagues hope to change that.

"Our results will be important to species range shift models," Kueppers said. "Right now those models occur in a vacuum of field information. Our goal is to provide hard data for them to use. We intend to integrate our results into new models to make new projections."

Their project will create three research sites at different elevations, with each site including plots heated with infrared lamps, plots with added water, plots with heat and water, and control plots with no modifications. The team plans to use Whitebark Pine and possibly Limber Pine seedlings in the experiment, and they are scouting locations for the project near Lee Vining, Calif.

"We know we'll follow these trees for four years, which is the duration of the grant," Kueppers explained. "But once the sites are set up, we hope to collect data from them for many more years to come."

Kueppers is recruiting grad students and postdoctoral researchers to work on the project. A postdoctoral researcher joining her this summer will contribute, and she hopes to involve undergraduate students, as well.

This project and other research efforts by Kueppers are performed as part of UC Merced's Sierra Nevada Research Institute, an interdisciplinary research organization designed to bring together faculty members from different disciplines to cooperate on research regarding the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley of California, especially regarding population growth, competition for natural resources, air, water and soil pollution, climate change and competing land uses.


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