New vegetation models can improve climate change predictions

A new study in Nature Plants has explored the most important organising principles that control vegetation behaviour. The insights from this study can be used to improve predictions on climate change. Leiden scientists Peter van Bodegom and Nadia Soudzilovskaia participated in the study.

The role of plants

Plants play a critical role in supporting life on Earth, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in our understanding of how exactly they affect the global carbon cycle and ecosystem services. We rely on the plants that make up our planet’s ecosystems to release oxygen into the atmosphere, absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), and provide habitat and food for wildlife and humans. These services are critical in the future management of climate change. However, the ability of vegetation to provide these services remains difficult to predict due to the many complex interacting processes.

Getting rid of uncertainty

In a study published in the Nature Plants, an international team of researchers explored approaches to master this complexity and improve our ability to predict vegetation dynamics. They explored key organising principles of vegetation processes. In general, an organising principle determines or constrains how different plants in an ecosystem or how different organs of a plant behave together. Such constraints imply that not all services can be provided simultaneously and are important to inform those models that describe and predict how plant processes determine the dynamics of vegetation on larger scales. The team stresses the importance of considering these constraints, or trade-offs, in these models next to continuing model expansions with additional data and processes, each with its uncertainties. These expansions have led to an accumulation of uncertainty and therefore possibly unreliable model predictions.

Fitting with Leiden

‘These ideas fit seamlessly with research done at the Institute of Environmental Sciences of Leiden University, in which we develop relatively simple models – based on the traits of plants – to predict when being an evergreen is more profitable than being a deciduous species, which sheds its leaves annually,’ indicates co-author Peter van Bodegom.

The authors expect that apart from leading to better tools for understanding and managing our Earth, the proposed ‘next-generation approach’ may show different trajectories of projected climate change that both policy and the general public would have to cope with.

Publication

Oskar Franklin et al. – Organizing principles for vegetation dynamics (2020), Nature Plants

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