European Commission, Environment DG

Increasing plant diversity: the answer to climate change adaptation?

Extreme weather events are expected to increase in frequency and magnitude as the global climate changes. The effect of this on plant productivity in Europe is largely unknown. Researchers have recreated extreme weather conditions in isolated plots to assess the impact on plant productivity. They found that the response of plants to the conditions depended on the diversity within a plant community. Grassland conservation is a key theme in the EU's LIFE+ programme1. Extreme weather events, such as drought or prolonged rainfall, brought about by global climate change, are likely to compromise the ability of ecosystems to function normally. Preservation of Europe's naturally occurring vegetation is therefore fundamental to maintaining ecosystem goods and services. Understanding the effects of extreme weather conditions on soil moisture is central to the maintenance of normal plant growth.

A new German study recreated the local 100-year weather extremes of both drought and heavy rainfall. The researchers assessed the impacts of these extreme weather events on plots containing mixtures of grasses, herbs, shrubs and legumes, which represent naturally occurring grassland or heath communities.

For all plant communities, productivity remained broadly stable in the face of drought or heavy rainfall, despite the fact that the rate of plant tissue die-back (percentage of dead plant fibre above ground) significantly increased in response to both weather extremes. Interestingly, more diverse grassland communities (plots with more species) were less prone to die-back, a stress response, than plots that had fewer plant species.

The results show that if legumes were in the plots, overall plant productivity increased, regardless of the weather conditions. Also, in plots that contained a mixture of grasses and dwarf shrubs, productivity increased in response to heavy rainfall. This was attributed to the presence of a grass species that performs better under conditions of increased soil moisture. Other plant species performed better in drought conditions. Overall the contrasting results suggest that the complementary effects of different species in mixed plant communities should be considered in more detail.

ExtremExtreme weather also has an impact on soil and microbial processes, which in turn affects uptake of nutrients and water by plants. Future work should consider the influences of various climate change related weather extremes on these processes, to gain a more complete picture of the impact on plant productivity and ecosystem functioning.

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