Earth Notes: Understanding the Plants of the Future

Flagstaff, AZ – Researchers at the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research in Flagstaff are trying to get a head start on saving the Colorado Plateau's plants in a hotter, drier future.

The scientists are mapping 30 species of trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of the San Francisco Peaks. They're watching how the plants respond to changing temperature and precipitation. The scientists hope their computers will paint a picture of the Colorado Plateau's future plant communities in an era of climate change.

One of the project's goals is to figure out what factors most strongly affect plant survival whether drought, fire or bark beetles. Once scientists know how these factors interact with elevation, they'll be better able to predict the future.

Take the example of pi on pine. Their populations can migrate uphill as their seeds are dispersed, but only at a rate of about 50 yards a year. If low-elevation habitats that now support pi ons dry up more quickly than that, pine populations may not be able to move uphill quickly enough into suitable new habitats.

But if researchers can predict the best places for pi on pines in 50 or 100 years, they can start planting now and give those future trees a head start.

There's no doubt, the scientists say, that a hotter, dryer Southwest will look different than the one we know today. But with a little preparation, the researchers hope to preserve at least some of today's diversity and shade.

-Anne Minard