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New research shows plants are responding instantly to climate change

The findings demonstrate the sensitivity of natural ecosystems to climate change and enables better forecasting of impacts of future climate changes.

People standing on a platform, floating on water
The research team extracting sediment from Lake Hamelsee, Germany

Natural ecosystems are incredibly sensitive to climate change - according to new findings by a research team headed by a Birkbeck scientist.  

The research team say the findings are important, as understanding the timing and rate of natural ecosystem responses to climate change is key to supporting and developing mitigation and adaptation policies. 

The discoveries were made by extracting and analysing 18 metres of sediment from Lake Hämelsee, Germany. The sediments have recorded climate and environmental conditions since the formation of the lake after the end of the last ice age, around 15,000 years ago. Part of the Hämelsee record preserves annual layers, just like tree-rings, allowing extremely detailed analysis of the effects of an abrupt climate cooling phase around 12,820 years ago. Study of plant and insect remains preserved in the lake sediments revealed that the cooling rapidly impacted the lake and that the regional vegetation as well as the freshwater insect community responded instantly to the change in their environment. The team were able to precisely compare the changes seen at Hämelsee to other sites, in part due to the presence of ash layers that were deposited over wide areas by large volcanic eruptions.  

Dr Stefan Engels, Lecturer in Geography at Birkbeck, said: “Chemical and biological signals within natural archives, such as lake sediments, allow us to see how nature responds to climate change. Our results indicate that the environmental impact of climate cooling was more severe than previously thought and that it was felt at the same time across large parts of Europe. This demonstrates the sensitivity of natural ecosystems to climate change and helps us to better forecast the effects of future climate changes.” 

This research was published in Communications: Earth and Environment on 9 June 2022 and is freely available online here: 

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