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Climate Controlled Prairie Experiment Gives Window Onto NW Future

THURSTON COUNTY, Wash. - Oregon researchers have set up a kind of time machine to test how a warmer climate might affect the region’s grasslands and prairies. Our intrepid correspondent Tom Banse asked to see the wildflowers of the year 2075. He’s back from the future and brings us this report on how much color you can expect.

Sadly, no sci-fi movie contraptions were involved to transport me to the future. A watering hose and circles of electric heat lamps did the trick.

Scott Bridgham: “They’re actually chicken heaters, but they work great.”

Ecologist Scott Bridgham helped design this experiment. He’s one of the leaders of a University of Oregon team trying to mimic what climatologists predict for 50 to 80 years from now, and see what that does to biodiversity.

The chest-high outdoor heat lamps aim to keep the plants here a constant five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they would be otherwise. Sprinklers add further realism to the model.

Scott Bridgham: “Basically what they’re predicting is - and your listeners won’t be happy with this - it is going to be rainier in the rainy season.”

The researchers have set up their windows into the future at three widely spaced nature preserves. One is in southern Oregon, another near Eugene and the third just south of Olympia, Washington. At each location, the team has staked out experimental plots in a prairie.

Some circles get extra heat and rain on top of what nature currently provides and others are left alone to serve as controls.

Scott Bridgham: “Climate change may be good for some of these species. It may be bad for some of these species. And so we’re trying to sort that out.”

Bart Johnson: “It’s very difficult to predict. I think there’s no better way to do it than an empirical study like this where we are putting additional heat out here and seeing what the effects are.”

That’s Bart Johnson, the co-principal investigator. Periodically, all the team members get on their hands and knees to count and measure.

We’re at the northernmost of the three sites on a prairie being restored by the Nature Conservancy. White oxeye daisies catch the eye alongside colorful ground-hugging natives such as blue lupines, purple owl’s clover, green bracken fern and a yellow flower called Oregon sunshine. The post-docs and grad students call this part the “data collecting Olympics.”

Tom Banse: “When I look at the heat lamp plots, it actually looks pretty. There are more flowers.”

Bart Johnson: “Well, we’ve all got jackets on. It’s kind of cold. The plants under the heater lamps are not unhappy at all about having a little extra heat right now.”

Scott Bridgham: “Today, we’re happy to work in the heated plots.”

Tom Banse: I want to climb in there too.

Bart Johnson: “When we go all the way down to southern Oregon, what we have seen there is that there are a small number of the introduced species which are quite invasive that do really well on the plots because now they have cold winters down there, but they have enough warmth and enough moisture in the heated plots to grow very rapidly. They are emerging before the native species are and tending to smother out the other plants.”

Tom Banse: “So that’s a bad effect there.”

Bart Johnson: “The other two sites it’s not looking very good under climate change for the native species. This one, it’s harder to tell.”

Johnson says having a string of experimental plots from south to north could also allow the researchers to predict shifts in the ranges of native and exotic plants.

The University of Oregon team received $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to study climate impacts on dwindling prairies for three growing seasons.

They’re about halfway to the finish line.

On the Web extras:

Project Website:

Experiment locations:

Deer Creek Center, Illinois River Valley near Selma, Ore.

Willow Creek Preserve near Eugene, Ore.

Tenalquot Prairie Preserve near Rainier, Wash.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

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