Plants and their environments can tell us much about how the planet is changing, and what may come next.
Tala Awada, a physiological plant ecologist and associate dean for research in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Agricultural Research Division, has spent years learning about climate change through the study of trees and plants. She’s also trekked through the Nebraska Sandhills and the pine forests of Greece to study plants in their environments and solve problems, such as the management of invasive species, changed ecosystems and disease.
Nebraska Today sat down with Awada to talk about her research, how trees and plants act as a window into the future, and what motivated her to become a scientist.
Q: What is the benefit of studying plant ecophysiology in Nebraska?
A: There is benefit everywhere. I can give you an example. We have issues with the grasslands. One of them is the invasion of Eastern redcedar, or Juniperus virginiana. By understanding how it functions, its efficiency mechanisms, how it grows, reproduces and spreads, how it uses resources, it enables us to manage it better and understand how it will spread in the future with climate change and grasslands management.
Q: Speaking of climate change, what can we glean about it from the study of plants, trees and their ecosystems?
A: We can glean many things. For instance, I work with tree rings. And I work on the tree rings of invasive species such as Eastern redcedar and expanding species such as ponderosa pine. Also, I work with remnant species such as paper birch that we have along the Niobrara River. By understanding how the trees grow, by examining their annual tree ring growth patterns and their isotopic composition — such as oxygen or carbon — we can understand their response to past environment, their efficiency mechanisms, and forecast how they will respond to climate change and what this means to the community they are in. We just published a collaborative study with the University of Campania in Italy and the Swiss Federal Institute, where we were able to separate the impact of climate change that is due to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from that of our intra- and inter-annual variability in weather. We found that the trees are positively responding to the increase in carbon dioxide irrespective of weather variability. That will give us the ability to understand those trees better, and from that study, we were able to predict that this species is going to continue expanding in the Sandhills. That will have impacts on productivity, diversity and the income of the ranchers, for instance.
Q: What can you tell us about Nebraska plants or tree life from your research that might surprise us?
A: I think about how acclimated and adapted the plants and trees are to our environment. One thing that may surprise you is the remnant forest that we have of paper birch, which is very rare to have in the United States. It’s a remnant boreal forest, and if you know boreal forest, it’s really more in northern Canada. That area escaped some of the glaciation many thousand years ago, and it’s still surviving to now. It’s on canyons facing north, along areas of the Niobrara River. It’s in a very unique microclimate that allowed it to continue, but it is in danger of climate change, of other species invading, which are changing the water cycle and impacting the environment. Not many people know about this remnant forest, but it’s something very unique to Nebraska.
Q: What are some plants that Nebraskans can use in their yard or their garden that are especially hardy and can survive?
A: There are many of them. For trees, I like the spruces and the firs. Also, there are the oaks. I would stay away now from the ashes because of the insects and diseases. The pines are great. There are many species that we can grow here, and that depends on the preference and the function of it. Whether you want to use shade, whether you want more sun, it all depends, but there are a lot of options.