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Hidden power of plants and their impact on regional climate •

In a fascinating study that sheds light on the intricate relationship between plants and the climate, researchers have discovered that ecosystems can have a significant impact on the world’s climate.

The extent of this impact depends mostly on the mix of plants present, as recent research spearheaded by Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) reveals.

Utilizing a combination of satellite data and approximately 50,000 vegetation records from across Europe, the researchers have determined the significant role of local plant diversity. They found that it accounts for about five percent of regional climate regulation.

Plants and Europe’s climate in a delicate balancing act

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the new study demonstrates how plant ecosystems can substantially affect regional climates based on their composition.

Dr. Stephan Kambach, a research associate in the Department of Geobotany at MLU, explains the intricate dynamics between flora and climate.

“The relationship between plants and the climate is profoundly complex. On one hand, climatic conditions greatly influence plant growth and characteristics such as height, leaf thickness, and root depth. On the other hand, plants have various ways of influencing the climate,” Kambach said.

Plants can affect the climate by reflecting sunlight, which reduces heat accumulation in certain areas. They also cool their surroundings through evaporation and absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

Unearthing the impact of plant traits

Despite known plant-climate interactions, the impact of specific plant traits on the climate was less understood.

To bridge this knowledge gap, an international team led by MLU combined regional satellite imagery with detailed local surveys. They analyzed plant traits across almost 50,000 locations in Europe.

“We made it a point to include a variety of habitats in our study, encompassing coniferous forests, deciduous and evergreen forests, shrublands, and open countryside,” notes Professor Helge Bruelheide, senior author of the study and head of the Department of Geobotany at MLU.

Varied vegetation, varied effects

The findings underscore that the climate-regulating processes observed are significantly influenced by the functional traits of local plants.

“The impact varies considerably depending on the plant species present and their abundance in an ecosystem,” Kambach adds.

Differences were particularly notable between types of forests, such as evergreen coniferous and evergreen deciduous.

“Our analysis confirms that areas with higher plant cover reflect less sunlight. Similarly, plants with larger leaves tend to exhibit higher rates of evaporation and greater carbon sequestration,” he elaborates.

This study is a pivotal outcome of the European research project “FeedBaCks,” which aims to explore the feedback mechanisms between biodiversity and climate. It also examines their implications for humanity.

Coordinated by the University of Zurich, the project involves several prestigious institutions, including the universities of Brno, Frankfurt am Main, and Grenoble, as well as the Swiss Federal Research Institute, the Senckenberg Society for Natural Research, and the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Sustaining Europe’s climate through plant diversity

Professor Bruelheide emphasizes the broader implications of their findings. “Our study highlights critical considerations for nature conservation and policy-making. It is crucial that the potential impacts and feedback effects of biodiversity are accounted for in strategies designed to mitigate climate change,” he concludes.

In summary, this study has shed new light on the complex relationship between plants and climate. By combining satellite data with extensive vegetation records, they have demonstrated that ecosystems can significantly influence Europe’s climate, depending on the mix of plants present and their functional traits.

This research advances our scientific understanding of plant-climate interactions and highlights the importance of considering biodiversity and ecosystem composition in nature conservation and climate change mitigation strategies.

As we face the challenges of a changing climate, this study provides a valuable foundation for developing more effective and holistic approaches to protecting our planet’s future.

The full study was published in the journal Global Change Biology.


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