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Plant diversity threatened by climate change and buildup of greenhouse gas, study reveals

entrations of nitrogen pollutants in the soil.

To study the environmental impact of such future global changes, researchers monitored 36 circular plots of land, each about six feet in diameter, between 1998 and 2001. Four circles were left undisturbed as experimental controls. Each of the remaining 32 circles was divided into four quadrants like a birthday cake cut into equal pieces for a total of 128 experimental plots.

Different treatments were applied to different plots. Some were given a single application, such as excess carbon dioxide gas, while others received various combinations of elevated CO2, heat, water and/or nitrogen fertilizer.

Initially, each plot contained between five and 20 varieties of grasses and wildflowers. The goal of the experiment was to see how different combinations of treatments would affect species diversity over a three-year period.

Diversity loss

The results were dramatic. Plots that received all four treatments lost more than one-fourth of their wildflower species, while those given elevated nitrogen or CO2 suffered a 10 to 20 percent decline.

However, plots treated with excess water experienced a 10 percent increase in wildflower diversity and a 3 percent gain in the number of annual grass species.

"We found that elevated CO2 caused a loss in species, while added precipitation caused an increase. We were surprised they had such opposite effects," said study co-author Christopher B. Field, a professor by courtesy of biological sciences at Stanford and director of the Carnegie Institution's Stanford-based Department of Global Ecology. "One hypothesis is that elevated CO2 added moisture to the soil, which tended to extend the growing season of the dominant plants, leaving less room for other species to grow."

On the other hand, he noted, increasing precipitation by 50 percent may have encouraged growth in late-season plants that normally stop growing during
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
16-Jun-2003


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