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Published May 14, 2012, 09:37 AM

Of early springs and scientists

If you’re bored by data and scientists, you might as well stop reading right now. But if you enjoy early springs and wonder how they affect plants on the Northern Plains, keep going.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

If you’re bored by data and scientists, you might as well stop reading right now. But if you enjoy early springs and wonder how they affect plants on the Northern Plains, keep going.

A team of North Dakota State University scientists participated in a worldwide study of how plants respond to climate change. The study, using historical observations, found that climate change is causing plants to flower much earlier than estimated by experiments in which global warming was induced artificially.

The new findings could have huge implications for climate change research and might cause scientists to refocus their approach.

“We need to establish more long-term observatory networks of plants in the field and improve artificial warming experiments,” says Steven Travers, an evolutionary biologist at NDSU who led the NDSU research team.

Others members of the NDSU research effort are graduate students Kelsey Dunnell and Elise Maxson and Mathew Cuskelly, an NDSU graduate.

The NDSU researchers were among scientists from 22 institutions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States who studied 1,634 species of plants across four continents. They compared how plants responded based on historical monitoring data and on small-plot experiments in which warming was artificially induced.

The research is being published in an advance online issue of the journal Nature.

Ecologists sometimes rely on warming experiments because historical data isn’t available in many locations. When and where possible, scientists also can make use of phenology, or annual shifts in the timing of natural events such as flowering, breeding and migrations and their relationship to weather.

North Dakota a natural

North Dakota was a natural candidate to be included in the study, says Travers, who first learned of the project through his involvement with the National Phenology Network.

For one thing, the state’s normally cold winters provide an ideal opportunity to study how climate change affects plants adapted to long, cold winters, he says.

Another factor was that the NDSU scientists were able to tap historical data assembled by O.A. Stevens, a former NDSU professor who from 1907 to 1961 traveled the state to gather plant samples and document prairie plants. Stevens Hall on the NDSU campus in Fargo is named in his honor.

Travers gives this example of how plants are responding to climate change:

From 1910 to 1960, an herb known as hoary puccoon flowered on average on May 19 in North Dakota. Now, the plant flowers on average on May 7, nearly two weeks earlier.

Implications

Climate change can have a huge impact on agriculture on the Northern Plains, Travers says.

When spring comes earlier, farmers potentially can plant a wider range of crops and seed varieties that take longer to mature.

“There are a lot more options,” Travers says.

Climate change and global warming can be polarizing, politically charged issues.

Travers says he’s a biologist and concentrates on plants. He also says well-regarded climatologists involved in the worldwide survey believe in climate change and that he accepts their conclusions.

“It’s real,” he says.

He hopes that his team’s research will lead to improvements in warming experiments and ultimately to a better understanding of how plants respond to climate change.

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