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Science File

Climate Change Threatens Plants in State

June 21, 2003|Allison M. Heinrichs | Times Staff Writer

Climate and atmospheric changes will result in less of the scarlet pimpernel, snow-white lilies and violet thistle that dot the California countryside, scientists reported this week.

The California grassland diversity study, which appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that increased levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the environment could lead to a loss of more than one-fourth in plant diversity in California grasslands -- a cut that mostly comes from the disappearance of wildflowers.

Chris Field, director of global ecology at the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Institution and coauthor of the report, said the loss of plant diversity could have far-reaching effects, ranging from the destruction of delicate animal habitats to the loss of many of the state's natural economic resources.

Plant diversity helps control weeds in agricultural regions, prevents soil erosion during heavy rains and encourages tourism in state and national parks.

"Now is the time for the public and government to be thinking about how they're going to adapt to these changes," said Erika Zavaleta, assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the study.

Zavaleta said the increases in carbon dioxide and nitrogen are largely the product of the human use of fossil fuels.

The study was performed at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in the Bay Area. Over a three-year span, researchers measured the effects of a 2-degree increase in temperature, a 50% rise in precipitation, a doubling of the carbon dioxide in the air and a boost in nitrogen pollutants in the soil, all probable scenarios for California's future.

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