Northwest Researchers Test Prairie Growth in Warmth of the Future

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

On a Washington state prairie preserved by The Nature Conservancy, heat lamps and hoses can be found next to the blue lupines, oxeye daisies, bracken ferns and yellow “Oregon sunshine” growing in circular plots.

The low-tech tools at Tenalquot prairie, part of the South Puget Sound Prairies preserve near Olympia, are part of a University of Oregon research project to simulate the climate of the future. Lead researchers Scott Bridgham and Bart Johnson hope to answer many questions about how Pacific Northwest prairies, and their many rare and endangered plants, will fare in 2075.

As described by a local news account, the prairie plant experiments funded by the Department of Energy are kind of like time travel.

Researchers have set up chicken-warming lamps in cordoned-off sections of prairie grass to make the plots five degrees warmer than the surrounding grasslands. Sprinklers simulate the wetter climate also expected if steps aren’t taken to curb carbon pollution that contributes to the warming of the planet.

Researchers can see how plants in this landscape are likely to grow in the next 50-80 years, when conditions are expected to be warmer and wetter. Some of the plots are left alone under natural conditions, to serve as controls.

The research is being conducted at three widely dispersed sites from south to North that may provide insight into how the ranges of native and exotic, or introduced, plants are shifting. The Washington site is the furthest north, with others located at the Conservancy’s Willow Creek preserve near Eugene, Oregon, and at the Deer Creek Center, in Illinois River Valley near Selma, southern Oregon.

The same 14 plant species were seeded at the 60 plots across all three sites in 2009, and the “treatments” of warm air and watering (some plots get warmth only, some watering only, and still others get both treatments) started in 2010. The plants being studied include species that are likely to indicate how well similar plants that now grow only in a few specialized locations will respond to a changing climate.

The research also aims to test the effectiveness of current restoration techniques with future climate change.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and feature writer for The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr user edgeplot (Oregon sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum, a native wildflower of Puget Sound prairies – one Northwest location where climate research on plants is underway – are grown at Shotwell’s Landing, a native plant propagation facility operated by The Nature Conservancy in southern Thurston County, Washington.) Used under a Creative Commons license.

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