Native Plants Could Suffer Due to Climate Change

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Most of California's native plants are very vulnerable to climate change, says a new study by researchers at Duke and the University of California. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports that climate conditions the study predicts could force plants to seek unexpected new homes.

Molly Peterson: Rising temperatures and altered rainfall could drive hundreds of species of native plants north and toward the coast, or up mountainsides, in pursuit of wetter and cooler weather. UC Berkeley biologist David Ackerly says where and how fast those plants will relocate depends on how widely they disperse their seeds. That's a tricky thing to measure.

David Ackerly: It's pretty hard to keep track of 'em. (laughs) Once they leave the plant and disappear.

Peterson: Ackerly says some Southland spots could become good refuges for native plants, especially the mountains that cut east to west, like the San Gabriels, the Tehachapis, and the San Bernardino range.

Ackerly: If you think about going hiking in a mountain range and how you can go from one side of the mountain to the other, or go up 500 feet and the conditions change a lot. That means plants don't have to migrate as fast and as far. And they're much more likely to find any given set of conditions in the complex topography of our mountains.

Peterson: But anywhere endemic or native flora must move greater distances to find better growing conditions, scientists expect biodiversity to suffer, not just among plants, but also among the animals and insects that take refuge and feed from those plants. Ackerly says these results may force wildland managers, and everyone else, to rethink what it means to protect the environment.

Ackerly: It started with the preservation movement; let's just settle the site and hang on to it. And then conservation; you know, we may need to more actively protect it. And then restoration, which still appeals to the idea that we're trying to restore it to what it looked like in the past. But now we may be trying to manage for something unknown of what it will look like in the future.

Peterson: Ackerly and his coauthors published their study in the Public Library of Science; it's available online.