Archives For “climate change”

Unfolding the Mysteries of the Ravines

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.

Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.

As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.

New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.

For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.

Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.

“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”

The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.

“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.

In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.

“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.

Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.

In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”

Early spring ephemerals in bloom on a ravine bluff.

Early spring ephemerals bloom on a ravine bluff.

Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.

Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

PHOTO: Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in Utah who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.

Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

PHOTO: Sagebrush in the canyon.

Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Why go all the way to China to talk about climate change, when there are plenty of conversations to have here in the U.S.?

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Xishuangbanna shares border land with Myanmar and Laos.

Returning from a week at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden for their Third International Symposium focused on “The Role of Botanic Gardens in Addressing Climate Change,” I’m struck both by the complexity and difference of the Chinese culture from ours, and by how many of the same challenges we face.

These challenges are global, and to solve them, we need to take a global perspective. Though the United States and China are in very different stages of economic development, we are the two leading emitters of greenhouse gasses—and we must lead the way in reducing our impact.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden is located near the village of Menglun in the Dai Independent Prefecture of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province in China, which shares 619 miles of borderland with Myanmar and Laos.

The area is a lush, tropical paradise, and does not seem at all affected by climate change, but it is a concern: the tropical areas of China—only 0.2 percent of its total land mass—represent more than 15 percent of the biodiversity in the country.

PHOTO: Peach-colored epiphytic orchids wrap their roots around a branch.

Native epiphytic orchids in Xishuangbanna

PHOTO: A view up into an enormous strangler fig.

Strangler figs and other enormous tropical trees create a high canopy above the forest floor.

Biogeographically, Xishuangbanna is located in a transitional zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical East Asia, so the climate is characterized as a seasonal tropical rain forest, with an annual average temperature of 18-22℃ (64.4-71.6℉), with seasonal variation. At about 20 degrees north of the equator, it is just on the northern edge of what is considered the tropics, though it does follow the rainy/dry seasonal patterns—May to October is the rainy season and November to April is the dry season. During my stay, they were experiencing weather somewhat colder than usual, with nighttime temperatures in the upper 40s and daytime temperatures in the low 60s. Earlier in the month, it was only in the upper 30s, but still far warmer than here in Chicago!

PHOTO: A view of the Mekong River Valley

A view of the Mekong River Valley

The vistas were breathtaking. This is a mountainous region, covered with lush tropical and semitropical plant life, wild bananas, lianas (long-stemmed, woody vines), tualang (Koompassia), and Dipterocarpaceae trees—some of which are more than 40 meters tall!

When I arrived on January 10, I noticed that many of the mountains were covered with what looked like vast areas of rust-colored trees. Rust-colored, I learned, because of a recent cold snap that damaged the leaves of the local monoculture: rubber trees.

PHOTO: View of Menglun Village, China.

A view of Menglun Village from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. The Mekong River tributary is in the foreground; rubber trees cover the hills in the background.

Rubber is the new thing in Xishuangbanna. Over the past 40 years, rubber trees have been bred for cooler climates, so production has moved northward from the true tropics to areas like Xishuangbanna. This has had enormous benefits for the local Dai population. Subsistence farmers in the past, they have been able to substantially improve their town infrastructure and their standard of living. But as rubber plantations expand, the ecosystem here is increasingly threatened, with only scattered fragments of untouched tropical forest left. While not directly related to climate change, the impacts of rubber were extensively discussed among conference attendees, because climate change exacerbates other environmental stresses like the fragmentation caused by the rubber plots.

PHOTO: The bark is stripped from a rubber tree. The sap is gathered and turned into rubber.

Not originally a local crop, rubber has become a primary crop of the area.

This seems to me to be a constant tension globally—the competing interest between economic development and conservation—and we’re still looking for the balance. In the United States we continue to have this debate, but around fracking and oil production rather than agriculture. Economic growth at the expense of the environment seems reasonable until we suddenly reach the point where the ecosystem services we depend on to live—clean water and air, food, medicine, etc.—are suddenly in jeopardy, either through direct human action or indirectly though other anthropogenic causes. And that brings us back to climate change.

Climate change is not an easy or comfortable topic of conversation.

Climate change is scary, politically (though not scientifically) controversial, abstract, and easy to ignore. It challenges us as individuals and organizations to rethink our priorities and choices, and to recognize that we may have to change the ways we do things, and how we live our lives, if we are to really address the problem. It is for these reasons, I think, that it generally is not a topic that botanic gardens have focused on when we develop our education or outreach programs. Internationally, gardens are finally beginning to work towards changing that, by building staff capacity to teach about climate change and by integrating climate-change education into existing and new programs.

Where better to understand and communicate how climate change will impact the natural world than at a botanic garden, where we can actually observe its impacts on plants?

The purpose of the conference was to bring together a group of international botanic garden researchers and educators to share their activities around climate change and to think broadly about how botanic gardens can and should use their resources to support movement towards a more sustainable society, as well as how we develop mitigation and adaptation strategies both for conservation purposes and human survival.  Almost 20 countries were represented at the conference, though disappointingly, I was the only U.S. attendee.

PHOTO: Group shot of a handful of conference attendees around a low table, eating dinner.

Many of our dinners were in the amazing local Dai cuisine—a real treat!

My particular area of expertise is environmental education, so experiencing tropical ecosystems directly, which there obviously isn’t the opportunity to do here in the Midwest, truly amazed and inspired me, and renewed my passion for communicating the wonder of nature to all the audiences that the Chicago Botanic Garden serves. It also drove home the real challenge we have to protect these ecosystems as the climate changes. In our discussions and in the sessions, we really focused on looking for solutions—action items—immediate and long term, that we as researchers and educators, and collectively as botanic gardens, could do to make a difference. 

After dozens of sessions on research and education (everything from paleobotany to using neuroscience to better tailor climate- education messaging—really fascinating!), and discussion in targeted working groups, we produced the Xishuangbanna Declaration on Botanical Gardens and Climate Change

In the education group, we took a multifaceted approach to the challenge—to really make a difference we need to increase our own capacity to communicate about climate change, more effectively engage our visitors in that discussion, and reach out to political, social, religious, and economic leaders to support the development of policies and practices that address the impacts of climate change on plants and society. It sounds like a herculean task, but if we each take one part of the job, I believe we can do it together. For example, here at the Chicago Botanic Garden we’ve stopped selling bottled water, use electric hand dryers rather than waste paper, are committed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for new building construction, and continue to look for other ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

It’s important that as institutions, gardens begin to “live the message” by implementing appropriate sustainability policies at our own institutions.

The entire declaration provides what I think is a concise, yet comprehensive, outline of how botanic gardens can use their strengths to address the very real challenge of climate change: through education, by taking meaningful steps to engage all our audiences; through research, by better understanding how climate change is affecting our environment; and through conservation, by protecting biodiversity and the other natural resources on which we depend.

PHOTO: Chinese temple.

Highlights outside the symposium included visiting this temple and the local market, and taking a canopy walk.

PHOTO: Women at market with giat 9-foot stalks of harvested sugar cane.

Sadly, raw sugar cane available in the local market would not fit in my suitcase to go home.

PHOTO: The author standing at a joint in a canopy walk path.

The signs on this walk warn that there is no turning around on the path. It’s not hard to see why.

PHOTO: A view back across the canopy bridge reveals how high the path is in the trees.

SO high up in the canopy, but the hills are still taller.

While there is no one “one size fits all” agenda or program that will work for every garden or every individual, I think there is a common approach that can be taken—gardens collectively need to develop a consistent message and mobilize our networks to communicate about climate change and its impacts. Gardens, along with our members, visitors, and patrons, have the capacity and the opportunity, if we will only take it, to inspire the broader community to act now for a better future. Join us.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Trees for 2050

A study of suitable trees for a warming midwestern climate

Andrew Bell —  September 4, 2013 — 10 Comments

A living museum presents special challenges to its curators.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we not only acquire and display our collections, but we must also keep them alive and healthy. As curator of the Garden’s collection of woody plants, I’m responsible for the welfare of more than 13,000 trees. Disease, infestations, and extreme weather events are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night.

If you have recently lost a tree to emerald ash borer, you may wish to view our short list of ash replacement selections. Our full list of suggested trees for adaptive planting is linked below.

As you may know, the Garden is undertaking a ten-year plan to remove about 400 trees due to the emerald ash borer. It’s up to me to suggest suitable replacements to continue our tree legacy. To do so, I first needed to know which of the trees now growing in the Garden would continue to thrive in a warming urban environment. Thanks to a $120,000 research grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, we’ve been able to undertake an adaptive planting study to identify which trees will continue to thrive in Chicago’s urban forests under worst-case carbon-emissions scenarios.

Climate-change modeling indicates that some trees—those currently growing at the northern edge of their hardiness—will actually do a little bit better in slightly warmer conditions around 2020, but by 2050, ten of the 50 trees under study—20 percent—will no longer find the metropolitan area a welcoming habitat. The real concern sets in when we look at the data for 2080, which projects that only 11 of the initial trees would continue to do well in Chicago and the upper Midwest.

The trees growing along our city streets, parks, residences, and public gardens enhance the quality of metropolitan living and also play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The cooling summer leaf canopy reduces our energy needs, and the trees themselves store significant amounts of carbon.

Our adaptive planting study suggests two key calls to action: drastically reducing carbon emission to slow climate change and help protect existing trees, and carefully selecting the trees we plant for future generations. To help both public officials and private property owners in their tree selections, the Garden has created an Adaptive Planting page on our website. There you’ll find information on a selection of 60 suitable trees for 2050.

 IMLS logo

This project is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IC-01-11-0145-11)
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Finding the Perfect Match

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 6, 2013 — 2 Comments
PHOTO: Norm Wickett looks at moss.

Dr. Wickett looks for liverworts growing under the cover of other vegetation on a previous research trip to Costa Rica.

In the deep green landscape of Vancouver, British Columbia, Norm Wickett stood spellbound.  As an undergraduate biology major at the University of British Columbia, he was enchanted by the seemingly endless ribbons of moss wrapped around the region’s natural areas.

“My heart is in mosses,” he shared during our recent conversation in his office at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “My first love in biology is mosses.”

Many of us non-scientists might consider this common plant—often seen lurking in shadowed, damp areas, to be a turnoff. But to Wickett, Ph.D., now a conservation scientist at the Garden, it presents an irresistible puzzle. How did this plant, likely one of the first to have lived on land, evolve from relatively few species during the Jurassic period to the 15,000 species living today? How did it adapt to all of the environmental changes that occurred?

“I’m attracted to more primitive plants,” said Wickett. He enjoys observing early species in the Garden’s Dwarf Conifer Garden.

As the recipient of a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Wickett is working to put the pieces together. “This grant is going to allow me to get back into mosses and it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Part of the National Science Foundation initiative called “Assembling the Tree of Life,” Wickett’s project is one of many branches of study the organization is funding to explore how all life is related.

His work, he believes, will answer important questions about the evolution of all plants from mosses to the conifers and flowering foliage that ensued. Also, it will allow him to identify the ways in which past environmental events, such as climate change, influenced the evolution of mosses, other plants, and animals. This type of knowledge will help researchers predict how plants could respond to future environmental changes.

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The spore-bearing capsules of a species of Dicranum moss drew Wickett’s attention while he climbed to a high elevation in Costa Rica.

Wickett’s research process begins in growth chambers in the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. There, he nurtures plants for study. He then takes samples of them to capture the many strands of RNA, or genes, in each species. An expert in plant genetics, he uses new computerized technology to compare the genes of many species of moss and look for patterns.

Why are genetic patterns important? They draw a mazelike course scientists can follow to answer vital questions. Wickett will trace them from species to species in order to see which mosses share RNA and are therefore related. He will also use this information to determine when new species, which share some genes with earlier moss species but also carry some slightly different genes, emerged and what the environmental conditions were at the time that allowed them to thrive.

Timing is everything. He explained that the arrival of new genes must happen at the same time as a complimentary environmental condition for a new species to endure. For example, a plant which developed the ability to hold more water would have been successful during a drought, while it may not have survived during a flood.

IMG_5011

Wickett noticed this patch of Sphagnum moss in Costa Rica at a high elevation.

The genetic change can only last, according to Wickett, if it occurs at a time when it gives the plant a benefit in its environment. “It’s a combination of genetic changes in the moss and changes in the climate and finding the change that is most successful,” said Wickett. “For all these things the first step is that there has to be a change in the genes.” Then, he said, “we can go back in time using computer modeling to see what caused the changes.”  These are the pieces Wickett plans to assemble into a bigger picture of evolution during the next three years of his research project.

It is too early to predict where his discoveries may take him, but for now, at least, it is clear that his heart is in the right place.

 

Look for liverworts, a relative of moss, growing in the Greenhouses on your next visit!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org