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New living lab experiment at SU studies climate change impact on trees

Last week's federal report on climate change puts the spotlight on how increasing global temperatures will affect the world. One Syracuse University professor is trying to localize that by creating a climate garden on campus that will show the effects of climbing temperatures on trees in central New York.

It looks like any other well-tended landscape on the Syracuse University campus. Some evergreens, a couple of flowering trees, all wrapped around the Life Sciences Complex. But this landscape is special; it’s part of an experiment by the biology department to chronicle how climate change is affecting certain tree species in central New York.

Biology professor Doug Frank says undergraduate students will be able to take what they learn in the classroom outside their doorstep.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVo
S.U. Biology professor Doug Frank stands next to one of the trees involved in the living lab experiment.

“We will be conducting classroom activities of effects, for example of how climate change is expected to influence forest ecosystems," Frank said. "And then the students can come out and collect data on these trees, and learn for themselves what is happening.”

Frank says there are 33 varieties of trees in this living lab. Some are native to central New York, while other species are from other parts of the U.S., as well as Asia and Europe.

Frank says students will compare how they all fare under warmer conditions.

"We would expect that species who’s ranges are in the warmer climactic zones, would react one way. Maybe they would grow more," Frank said. "And species that come from colder climate zones would not react the same way. They would not have reacted favorably to the warming.”

The professor says as the trees grow, students will closely observe any effects.

“Physiological characteristics, such as water use by the plants; photosynthetic rates, species more severely affected may be more susceptible to diseases," Frank explained. "There are things we really don’t know though, and this is why we are conducting these experiments.”

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
Biology professor Doug Frank examines one of the trees at Syracuse University that is being used in the school's climate change experiment.

The native species Frank expects could show the first signs of stress, is the Balsam Fir, because it’s native range starts in central New York and moves north.

"In our garden that would probably be the tree that we would see climate change impairing their health and vitality,” he said.

And ultimately, those higher temperatures will have the same effect on the climate change garden as they will on your garden.

"The precipitation events are much more severe," Frank said. "The precipitation falls in more severe downpours than they have in the past, and periods of extended drought will increase over time, so that will affect our gardens as well."

The trees were planted last fall and students will start using the garden as a classroom this upcoming fall semester.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.