Through a series of chemical and ecological processes, new research shows that climate change will likely result in detrimental shifts in desert plant communities. The process through which desert plant communities will shift is complex, involving increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and precipitation -- two fundamental ingredients of photosynthesis. Due to human industrial activity, concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased markedly in the atmosphere, and are expected to double relative to pre-industrial times by the year 2050. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide helps plants use water more efficiently. Simultaneously, climate change models predict a higher frequency of extreme weather events, such as the powerful El Nino of 1998. Through a series of experiments, ecologist Stanley Smith of the University of Nevada and colleagues have demonstrated that plant species respond differently to the combination of wet weather and high carbon dioxide concentrations. Their results, published in the November 2 issue of Nature, show that invasive species benefit more from these conditions, thus unsettling the balance by out-competing native desert plants. Additionally, the increase in plant matter boosts the amount of fuel for fires, an effect which could magnify over time since exotic species tend to recover faster than native species, after a blaze. This week's In The News describes the new findings and offers links to several educational and research Websites.


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