Climate change impacts on plants and soils: what that means for ecosystems and for climate feedbacks

Date(s) - 18/09/2023
9:30 am - 11:30 am
Lister Centre, U of A Conference Services, Edmonton Alberta

Plants, microbes, their interactions, and the communities they comprise are being affected by climate change and other global changes. These changes in turn influence the structure, function and integrity of ecosystems, landscapes and regions, often with important consequences for people as well as nature. Those changes in communities and ecosystems also impact climate through a variety of knock-on effects involving nutrient and carbon cycling, albedo, wildfires, and more. Some of those impacts accelerate climate forcing (i.e., amplify warming), others reduce it (i.e., dampen warming). A challenge to those of us who wish to generalize about global change impacts on ecosystems and consequences for climate of these changes, is that there are myriad and interacting global changes; and additionally, their impacts likely differ among divergent ecosystems and biomes. 

Among the global changes happening now are rising CO2, O3 pollution, N deposition, biotic invasion, and a raft of climate-related changes – including shifts in the average and seasonality of temperature, rainfall, and vapor pressure deficit, and increases in size, scope and frequency of climate events (heat waves, floods, drought, windstorms, wildfires). Contrast that complexity of drivers with our impoverished multi-factor experimental data base and the difficultly of differentiating among multiple drivers in observational studies; the contrast illuminates why we remain far from capable prediction today. Drawing from my own work and the literature, I will highlight a general framework that helps me think about the nature of these impacts and their heterogeneity in space and time, give examples from ‘case studies’ at both local and global scales, and in trying not to be a total bummer, provide some hope that we can do better in the decades ahead.

Peter Reich is an ecologist recognized for his research on plants and ecosystems across a range of scales. He is known for working with international collaborative networks to develop three new directions in the field of ecology: (1) functional biogeography, (2) global change biology and (3) biodiversity and ecosystem functioning research. Reich has been instrumental in turning the largely descriptive comparative biogeography sensu von Humboldt and Schimper into a modern quantitative science, and in developing ecologically realistic, and physiologically and biogeochemically rigorous, experiments testing plant and ecosystem response to rising carbon dioxide, climate warming, changing rainfall patterns, and to loss of biodiversity. He is also well regarded for translating knowledge across hierarchical, temporal and spatial scales, and helping incorporate such knowledge into models at continental to global scales. Reich currently serves as the Director of the Institute for Global Change Biology at the University of Michigan. He also maintains a joint affiliation at the University of Minnesota, where he holds the positions of Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, and the F.B. Hubachek Sr. Chair in Forest Ecology and Tree Physiology. Reich is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Reich has published more than 800 peer-reviewed research papers, with more than 150,000 citations and an H-index of 193 to date, and has been ranked the No. 1 ecology and evolution scientist in the world by, a prominent academic platform for scientists. Reich has actively contributed to science education by helping launch the science education channel, MinuteEarth, which has reached over 400 million views on YouTube and other platforms. He has, however, failed so far to slow or stop either climate change or biodiversity loss, so his work has just begun.

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