Plant communities can help forecast repercussions of climate change, study says

A study worked on by University of Minnesota researchers utilized the first global vegetation community database.

by Dylan Miettinen

University of Minnesota ecologists published a study last month that looked at how plant communities respond to global climates.

University scientists were among more than 100 other researchers from around the world who collaborated on the paper. Together, they utilized information from the world’s first global vegetation community database, an international effort to compile plant species from across Earth’s ecosystems. 

“This paper is part of a project that’s part of a larger grassroots initiative of ecologists from around the world to pull together data … so we can talk about how ecosystems and how plants contribute to the world globally,” said Peter Reich, a University ecology professor and co-author of the paper.

The global database, which contains more 1.1 million vegetation plots and over 23,000 plant species, could help predict the effects of climate change. 

“People have gone in and identified every species in a given area: forests in Minnesota, deserts in Nevada, rainforests in Brazil,” Reich said. 

The project aimed to bring together expertise from around the world and build a network of information, said Helge Bruelheide, a geobotany professor who works for the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, which helped develop the research database. 

Due to its large scope, the database presented challenges for researchers. 

“Immediately, it gave us a headache in informatics,” he said. “Data came with different formats from different databases, with different standards, different nomenclature of species – every database employs their own taxonomy.”

But, after several years of standardizing data, the platform became readily available to members of the scientific community and beyond, prompting further research. Bruelheide said there are currently 25 ongoing research projects. 

The project has ramifications beyond the fields of science, such as landscape architecture, said Tony Chevalier, an adjunct assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University. 

“Landscape architecture is rooted in ecology, with nature and ecology being the finest teacher,” Chevalier said. “The practices of landscape architecture, when done properly and best, is understanding the natural processes of a place and harnessing that power.”

Understanding those natural processes was one of the primary goals of setting up such a database, Reich said. Going forward, scientists, researchers and others can better study biomes and biodiversity.

“If you understand that all these plots in wet places have traits, that ones in dry ones don’t, you can say something about functional behavior around the world, and see if they follow any pattern or rules,” Reich said. 

The project could help better forecast trends of climate change. Currently, there is not a global agency to study and document vegetation, plant communities and ecosystems, like the World Health Organization does for public health, Reich said. 

“We are able to study [plant] traits and their relationships to their environment,” Reich said. “Plant communities rich in plant species tend to be rich in birds, insects, microbes and helps us understand global diversity.”

This understanding of biodiversity can better help address questions raised by those concerned with the environment and climate change. 

“Do we restore a landscape to its native condition prior to human footprint?” Chevalier said. “Or do we adapt the landscape to plant communities that are resilient enough to respond to the climactic pressures faced today?”