[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 16-Apr-2013
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Contact: Amy Pelsinsky
apelsinsky@umces.edu
410-330-1389
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Scientists look to ancient past to better predict how species may respond climate change

What do woolly mammoths wandering around the ancient spruce woodlands of eastern North America have to do with predicting how species could respond to climate change? Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory, along with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Merced, have received a three-year, $670,000 award from the National Science Foundation to study how plants and animals responded to changes in climate during the ice age to better predict what we can expect in the near future.

In particular, they will be trying to understand the response of vegetation, such as forests, to changes in climate. Working with fossilized tree pollen found at the bottom of lakes and fossils of mammals like woolly mammoths and rodents that fed on plants, the scientists can tell how the plants and animals living in forests thousands of years ago responded to changes in climate. Understanding this relationship can help build better models to predict how forests will respond to climate changes in the future.

"Looking to the past, we can ask whether we can 'predict' changes we saw in the past and learn how to build better models to predict the future," said lead researcher Matt Fitzpatrick."This is a period of time about 21,000 years ago to near-present when the climate changes are known very well. It roughly mimics the amount of climate change expected in the next hundred years."

Fitzpatrick studies global change and biodiversity, trying to understand what determines where species occur and how climate change may alter where species could live in the future. As part of this grant, he will develop and test new methods that consider interactions between species, for the first time accounting for patterns of species coexistence--such as when two kind of plants grow in the same place because one provides shade for the other--in order to predict how species and biological communities respond to changes in climate.

"We're trying to get better at forecasting what will happen in the future," he said. "What will vegetation in the eastern North America look like if climate changes the way climate models suggest? By looking to the past and assessing our ability to predict these observed changes back in time, we're hoping to do that better than we are able to do today."

The National Science Foundation award includes Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory, Jack Williams of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jessica Blois of the University of California- Merced.

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The Appalachian Laboratory is located in the mountains of western Maryland, the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Since 1962, the Frostburg-based institution has actively studied the effects of land-use change on the freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems of the region, how they function in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and how human activity may influence their health and sustainability on local, regional and global scales. The scientific results help to unravel the consequences of environmental change, manage natural resources, restore ecosystems, and foster ecological literacy.

UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science unleashes the power of science to transform the way society understands and manages the environment. By conducting cutting-edge research into today's most pressing environmental problems and training the next generation of environmental scientists, we are developing new ideas to help guide our state, nation, and world toward a more sustainable future. From the mountains to the sea, our five research centers include the Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, and the Maryland Sea Grant College in College Park. http://www.umces.edu



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