Can plants adapt to climate change?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Plants have 3 options to cope with climate change:

1) MOVE: Like you and me, plants like to have a certain amount of heat and water [2]. Yearly temperatures and water availability in any given location are changing due to global warming [2]. To cope with this, plants can move! Well… they don’t really move themselves, but they release seeds, and these only grow where temperature and rainfall are suitable [3]. So, over time, the species moves, or ‘migrates’ [3].

Since trees are so long-lived, they migrate slowly, and there is concern that they may not be able to keep up with rate of climate change [14]. Plants at the top of mountains are also expected to struggle, due to there being no-where higher up (and cooler) to migrate to [4].

2) ADAPT: If plants can’t move to track the climate, then they need other methods to survive [5]. One method of adaptation is changing the timing of life-cycle events [1,7]. Climate change is making Spring warmer, earlier [6]. Many plants use the temperature in the Spring as a signal for when to open their leaves – when a certain temperature is reached, they grow leaves [8]. This is happening earlier due to climate change [7,8].

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, so any changes they make will affect the rest of the ecosystem [13]. This is called a ‘trophic cascade’ [9]. Oak trees are making leaves earlier in the year, causing caterpillars to also develop earlier, so they can eat these leaves [12]. The caterpillars are caught by birds to feed their chicks, so the chicks need to hatch earlier [12]. Some birds are adjusting well [11], but others are struggling to keep up with the earlier leaves and caterpillars, resulting in their chicks not getting enough food [12].

3) GO EXTINCT: if a plant can’t move or adapt to the changing climate, it will be unable to survive and reproduce, and so will go extinct [5]. This probably isn’t happening yet, but it may be more common in the future [5]. Extinction is part of evolution, but we are accelerating it [15].

The fate of plants is of great importance, because it affects the animals which rely on them, including humans [10].

References

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