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Can the Sierra’s Trees Survive Global Warming?

July 10, 2007

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.