Ecologist Simulates Climate Change with Infrared Heaters

Climate change is leading to higher temperatures around the world, forcing plants, trees and animals to adapt to new conditions or relocate, often to higher elevations. But the process is gradual, and the effects of climate warming can usually only be observed over the course of years and decades.

But UC Merced ecologist Lara Kueppers is experimentally accelerating that process, using infrared heaters to simulate warming in the mountains of Colorado. The goal is to learn how tree species acclimated to cold weather will respond to the higher temperatures predicted for the coming decades by climate change experts.

“There’s a lot of suggestion that these species might be vulnerable to climate change,” said Kueppers, a professor in UC Merced’s School of Natural Sciences and Sierra Nevada Research Institute. “That is, as the climate warms, they may be at a disadvantage because they’re really adapted to cold-weather conditions, and they may not do better with warming.”

Kueppers and her research team are looking at the treeline area where the forest transitions into tundra and studying trees at lower elevations to see if they will be forced upward as temperatures rise. Should the treeline shift up in elevation, Kueppers said, the result could be changes to snowpack and water cycling, carbon and nutrient cycling within the ecosystem, and local temperatures.
Climate change means warmer temperatures overall — which could encourage growth in some trees — but it also means drier conditions, which can affect the soil’s capacity to support current species of trees and plants.

“One of the things that we’re really trying to pin down is whether the warmer temperatures are going to enable tree migration to higher elevations,” Kueppers said, “or whether warmer temperatures will actually hinder it because of these drier soils.”

The project — which includes researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of Colorado, Idaho State University and the U.S. Geological Survey — began in 2007 and required two years of planning and setup, partly because the remoteness of the test area makes it challenging to access. Kueppers said members of the research team are on site year round, though most of the key work is done during the summer and early fall.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the project has also led to valuable research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students at UC Merced. Daniel Winkler, a UC Merced graduate student originally from New York, learned about the project while studying in Colorado and came to UC Merced specifically to work with Kueppers.
Winkler spent last summer in Colorado working on a related project, studying alpine meadows and the response of those plants to warming.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” Winkler said. “It’s the main core to my research here. I think the research that I’m doing in Colorado is not only going to be the main focus of my master’s thesis, but it’s going to be the driver of what I’m going to do for the rest of my career.”

Alan Hong, an undergraduate student from Southern California who’s doing lab work on campus as part of the Colorado project, said UC Merced’s smaller campus provides outstanding research opportunities for undergraduates and fosters close relationships between students and faculty.

“Pretty much all of my classes have been fairly small,” Hong said. “Students have such a close connection with their professors, so we’re able to understand what research they’re doing and go toward professors whose research attracts us.”