Plant Physiological Responses to Climate and Environmental Change


Physiological implications of climate and environmental change are complicated because of potential multiple interactions between stresses, and incomplete theory to project net results. Rising atmospheric CO2 may be positive for plant growth in some regions, but in temperate regions, is less than predicted from simple physiological photosynthetic theory, because of feedback effects from within the plant, and from ecosystem level effects such as soil nutrient limitation. Rising temperatures will reduce freezing and chill stresses but will increase metabolic rates, although acclimation processes will temper this. Impacts on volatile organic compound emissions are attracting greater attention. High temperatures will induce heat shock responses, with poorly understood species‐specific impacts. Higher plants are generally physiologically well defended against UV‐B flux increases, which may now be moot due to chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) mitigation. Long‐term field experiments have been important in reducing uncertainties about future physiological responses of plants to multiple environmental change drivers.

Key Concepts

  • Plants are not passive in the face of climate and environmental changes but employ a wide variety of mechanisms in responding.
  • Physiological changes at cellular, organ and individual plant level occur in response to changing climate and environmental conditions.
  • Much remains to be learned about how multiple climate and environmental changes interact to alter the performance of individual plants and their populations, partly because theory that translates physiological responses and changes to whole plant and population level responses is still developing.
  • An understanding of physiological responses is useful but not sufficient to predict impacts at higher levels of ecological organisation, like communities and biomes. This is due to community level interactions, the fact that plants shape the environment to some extent, and thus, ecological feedback effects come into play.
  • Long term field experimentation remains vital for testing theoretical projections of the net effects of climate and environmental change on plants.

Keywords: acclimation; dynamic global vegetation model; global change; heat shock; photosynthesis; respiration; Rubisco; stress; stomata

Figure 1. Projected shifts in global annual temperature (a) and rainfall (b) according to IPCC's previous two reports, published in 2007 and 2013 (from Collins et al., ). These show that the improvements in global climate models over the past decade have not resulted in major changes to projected climate change scenarios. The units are changes in local temperature and rainfall per °C projected global temperature change (in other words, the figure can be used to assess absolute local projected temperature or rainfall change according to the level of global warming projected, thus indicating the potential effectiveness of mitigation action for all regions of the world).
Figure 2. Idealised photosynthetic CO2 response curves, showing the distinction between net fixation rate of typical C4 (bold line) and C3 (fine line) plant species at the leaf level.
Figure 3. Agriculturally important stress combinations from Mittler . Different combinations of biotic and abiotic stresses are presented in the form of a matrix to demonstrate potential interactions that can have important implications for agriculture. Different interactions are colour coded to indicate potential negative [i.e. enhanced damage or lethality owing to the stress combination (purple)] or potential positive [i.e. cross‐protection owing to the stress combination (green)] effects of the stress combination on plant health. However, the potential effects of stress combination could vary depending on the relative level of each of the different stresses combined (e.g. acute vs low) and the type of plant or pathogen involved.
Figure 4. Three examples of field‐based methods for investigating CO2 impacts on plants and ecosystems. (a) A free‐air CO2 enrichment (FACE) ring at Sky Oaks experimental site in chaparral vegetation, California, USA. (b) Open‐top chambers placed on a mixed C3/C4 marshland system in the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center field site, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. (c) Branch bag fumigation system installed in a managed Sitka spruce plantation near Penicuik, Midlothian, Scotland (photo credits author).


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Further Reading

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Midgley, Guy F(Apr 2017) Plant Physiological Responses to Climate and Environmental Change. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003205.pub2]