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NC State researchers explore future of climate change on ecosystems

Posted June 16, 2015 7:25 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2015 7:43 p.m. EDT

— Scientists wonder how plants and animals will cope with gradually rising temperatures in the decades to come. An experiment in Orange County is giving researchers a glimpse into a warmer future.

According to Clint Penick, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University, small rises in global temperatures—about a degree Fahrenheit—over the past 50 years have already changed ecosystems around the world.

“Right now, most of what we know about climate change is based on theoretical models of what might happen,” Penick said. “What this experiment has done is to give us a window into the future of what a warmer world is going to look like.”

The initial goal was to study the effect on ants. Scientists found that the most common ant species in North Carolina forests—insects that help keep soil healthy—struggled as temperatures increased.

“If this species is gone, we're predicting pretty major shifts in the health of forests,” Penick said.

However, other species performed better when the temperature got warmer. Imbalances could mean a lot, which researchers plan on exploring in the next phase of the project.

The experiments officially ended last week, but researchers from around the world have been collecting samples, studying temperature's effects on everything from soil to plants.

“When the dynamics between different species start to break apart, that's when it affects our lives, and that's when we start to care about it,” NC State researcher Lauren Nichols said.

These experiments could provide new discoveries for years, adding more hard data to the discussion about climate change.

Duke University researchers are conducting a similar experiment, focusing on how climate change could affect tree growth.