South African Desert Becomes Global-Warming Lab

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"Midgley's work is right on the cutting edge," says Brett Orlando, the climate change adviser for the World Conservation Union in Gland, Switzerland. "He can't tell us when and what plants will be lost, but his work gives us a sense, a direction, of where things are headed."

"Other research teams have focused on the effects of climate change on particular species: birds in Mexico, mangroves in Southeast Asia, and amphibians, snakes, and birds in Costa Rica. But Midgley is one of the first to look at an entire ecosystem," says Thomas Lovejoy, conservation biologist and president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

Watching the Heat Rise

Midgley and his colleagues at NBI are also conducting experiments to test plant survival in warming conditions. The researchers have erected 20 hexagonal Plexiglas chambers at several sites in the Karoo that trap heat and raise temperatures around the plants between four and six degrees during the day.

"This greenhouse effect kills 70 to 80 percent of the plants," says Midgley. "The models predict that the plants won't survive, and they don't."

The next stage in the experiment is to build more chambers to test a broader range of temperatures. "We want to know what is considered safe climate change," Midgley says.

Knowing the survival limits of plants in the Karoo may effect global energy policies and land use. If small increases in temperature threaten species, that adds to the pressure to reduce reliance on the fossil fuels believed to make the planet warmer.

More immediately, the research may reinforce the need for "friendly land management practices," as Midgley calls them, which allow species—plants and animals—to migrate in response to shifting temperatures and rainfall.

One result might be not grazing or farming "right up to the fence," says Midgley. "We need to ensure there are buffer zones next to protected areas, and generous wildlife corridors for all species to move and adapt to climate change."

As the work in the Karoo demonstrates, environmental groups increasingly need to consider climate in deciding the focus and the methods of conservation.

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