Institute of the Environment 2017

Predicting Climate Impacts on New World Plants

Friday, February 20, 2015

Brian Enquist spends a lot of his time cleaning dirty data.

As the principal investigator for the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN), Enquist is standardizing data about New World plant species to make the information useful and useable to scientists, forest managers, and gardeners.

Standardizing or “cleaning” the data involves verifying geographic coordinates, which will make it possible to create topographic range maps for approximately 120,000 species. “By combining that primary data—over 40 million observations throughout the New World—with climate and soil information, we can provide a best estimate of where a species is likely to occur,” says Enquist, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

An IE Faculty Exploratory Research Grant, awarded to projects involving interdisciplinary global change research or other related research activity, is helping Enquist incorporate future climate predictions into the maps. “Based on climate change, we can tell you the likelihood that a given species will be there or not in 40, 60, or 100 years,” Enquist says.

So far the data show disheartening news for forests. “Starting in 40 to 60 years from now we should start seeing some impressive collapses of western forests, and not just in the Southwest,” Enquist says. 

Before that happens, Enquist and his team will release an iPhone app that uses GPS technology to tell you what plant species, complete with their characteristics, are near you, whether you are in and around Tucson or in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Enquist hopes to make the app a general platform for allowing us to discover the diversity that currently surrounds us and how species will change.  

Steve Archer, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Jennifer McIntosh, an associate professor in the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources, also received 2013–14 Faculty Exploratory Research Grants.