How does tropical vegetation cope with climate change? How far must climate change go before tropical vegetation is severely damaged?
To answer these questions, Smithsonian scientist Klaus Winter cultivates a mixture of tropical trees, shrubs, vines and grasses in geodesic domes located in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Gamboa Outdoor Laboratories.
Inside the geodesic domes, these plants are exposed to elevated temperatures – up to 6 degrees Celsius above normal – and carbon dioxide concentrations that are up to 2.5 times higher than current levels.
STRI’s Geodesic Domes enclose young Ficus insipida fig trees that grow under varying temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in Gamboa, Panama, in December 2015. Photo: Sean Mattson/Smithsonian
High concentrations of carbon dioxide are within the range of those projected for the next century, if the current trajectory of increasing emissions continues.
The results will tell Winter what the tropics can expect when, or if, these changes occur.
Follow-up studies will include experimental manipulations that include treatments for drought and extreme temperatures, and treatments.
“The outcome of these replicated mesocosm experiments could have enormous implications for our ability to predict whether and when climate change could reach a tipping point for tropical plants” Winter says.
The health of tropical plant communities housed in geodesic domes is studied from the seedbed stage until the canopy of leaves reaches several meters in height.
This results of the research will illuminate our understanding of the susceptibility of tropical plants to climate change and environmental stress, thus providing a basis for decision-makers to plan for the future.
The experiments highlight the enormous potential of biodome enclosures as tools for studying the responses of tall vegetation to climate and atmospheric change.
In addition, the dome facilities serve a vital educational function, providing an opportunity for visitors to learn about tropical plants and climate change.
Klaus Winter is a plant physiologist and directs the Solar Dome project at STRI.
He received his doctorate from the University of Darmstadt, Germany.
After field research in the Negev Desert, Israel, postdoctoral appointments at the Australian National University of Canberra and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and appointments as Heisenberg Fellow and Professor of Botany at the University of Würzburg, he joined the STRI scientific team in 1991.
He studies the biochemical-physiological underpinnings of plant responses to environmental stress and to climate and atmospheric change.
Researcher with experience in the field of Biochemistry
He began his research career, while still a student, discovering that certain plants can change reversibly from one photosynthetic pathway to another in response to the stress of salinity and drought (from C₃ photosynthesis to CAM photosynthesis), a topic he still devotes himself to with unabated fascination.
He has published nearly 250 research articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Projects like Tropical Dome are contributing to a better and more sustainable world.
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