Australian Scientists Are Working Out What Climate Change Will Mean For Plants And For Food Production

Rose McEwan, 16, and James McEwan, 12 paddle their inflatable lilo’s on a flooded play ground in Rangiora, New Zealand. Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Australian scientists are studying how plants worldwide will respond to more extreme rainfall in a future affected by climate change.

They report that impacts will vary greatly across regions, meaning potentially dramatic disruptions to plant growth.

Extreme rainfall means changes to food production, forestry industry, biodiversity and carbon and water cycles.

Interactions with pests and pathogens, and invasive species may also be influenced by extreme precipitation changing soil water content.

Dr Melanie Zeppel and Jessica Wilks of Macquarie University, in an international collaboration with Professor James Lewis of Fordham University, New York, conducted a global review of how plants respond to extreme rain in different ecosystems around the planet.

Their paper is published in the journal Biogeosciences.

The world is seeing more intense droughts, storms and floods but we don’t currently know how many plants, particularly deep-rooted trees, will respond to this changed timing of rainfall.

Dr Zeppel says the CSIRO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree that in future we are likely to see more extreme weather, with many regions receiving intense droughts, floods, as well as hotter heat waves and bush fires.

“Even if the amount of rainfall within a year stays the same, in future, rain is likely to fall in more intense and extreme rain events,” she says.

“That means rather than many, small rain events, we are likely to experience, fewer, more heavy rain events.”

Consequences include delayed flowering, significantly less fruit production, smaller plant size and mortality in some regions and soil types, with plants in other regions growing larger.

In certain low rainfall regions, extreme rain caused growth rates to go up, whereas in wetter regions,it caused plant growth to decrease.

“It will be fascinating to see if this pattern holds across different ecosystems, and whether there is a threshold, above which changed precipitation timing causes plant growth to decline,” she says.

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