On a chilly afternoon last October, at a University of Northern Arizona conference, Thomas Whitham, a plant geneticist, proposed a plan to save hundreds of species from extinction. For the last several years, Whitham said, he and his colleagues had used a series of experimental gardens to study how plants are being affected by warming temperatures—in near real-time—and how their populations might evolve due to climate change.
In these gardens, located in various ecosystems and elevations around the Southwest—from deserts to alpine forests—Whitham planted different genotypes of the same species. This enabled him to identify superior genetic lines, the genotypes that can best handle environmental stresses. The results are the culmination of a thirty-year race against climate change to create ecosystems capable of responding to a warming world.
But Whitham’s work isn’t solely focused on the future. His focus on helping critical species, and the communities they support, to survive climate change has led him to collaborate with some of the largest names in conservation—the Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service. Preliminary results from his experimental gardens, 10 in total, suggest that species have already shifted their range in response to changing temperatures. On the lower Colorado river, Whitham is applying what he’s learned to advise the Bureau of Land Management what tree species to replant after forest fires. “If they get it wrong, and plant trees that can’t handle the increasing heat,” Whitham says, “they’ll lose the whole $626 million [reforestation] project.” [continue]
I hike in the woods every day. Anybody who is trying to preserve the forest has my attention.