HOW DOES A PLANT VIEW THE WORLD?—By Ådne Sandvik Dyrnesli
Vigdis Vandvik is researching how climate, and other human-made changes to nature, affect plants. To do that she has to think like a plant.
Vigdis Vandvik and her well used “Norwegian Flora”, which is used to identify plants.
Vandvik is a community ecologist, and centre director of BioCEED at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Bergen. She is leading the Between the Fjords Lab, a group of scientists and students focusing on how global change impacts plants in the fjord regions of western Norway.
Q: In one of your research papers, which I tried to read, you wrote about looking from the vantage point of the plants. But plants don’t have eyes, so what do you mean by that?
A: We record temperature in degrees celsius and rainfall in millimeters, but the plants don’t know about celsius or millimeters. They respond to what they register, and therefore I figured out that we have to find out what they respond to.
What we do is that we change the x-axis of our plots and graphs. Instead of having temperature in celsius, we put something else there. For example mosses, because the temperature influences the mosses, and the mosses influences the other plants.
I’ve found out that the mountain plants don't react to changes in temperature, but to alienplants. The native plants in the mountain are squeezed out by plants coming from the lowlands, because these have thin, big leavess, leaves that resemble the leaves of basil, for example. These leaves are very good at gathering light, but they require higher temperatures to survive. Instead of putting temperature on the x-axis, we could put the abundance of basil-like leaves there.
Most of the time the data collected in the field ends up as graphs. This is a slide from one of the many presentations Vandvik does, both internally at the university and externally, for example for politicians.
Q: What is your role in the projects you lead?
A: I typically bring the main idea and the big questions, and then I plan the experiments. Doing experiments is my big love. To figure out what buttons to turn, how to manipulate the system to get the answers to the questions we are after. Everything is connected. If you want to understand how nature works then manipulating it is very effective, either by removing or adding components, and then observing how the system responds.
I’m interested in how nature varies between different places and situations. That’s why western Norway is perfect for me, I have access to a lot of different climates within very short distances. There are places with 3,5 meters of rain in a year, and other places with only 0.5 meters. It’s both wet and dry, and when you go from sea level and up into the mountains you go from warm to cold. My claim to fame is that I do the same experiments at different sites, and then work to understand the variability in responses.
I’m interested in the similarities between the sites, how they respond differently and why they respond differently. We need to know this to understand how the global changes in climate and land use affects nature, and how nature can keep functioning the way we need it to.
When I get funding for a project, the first thing I do is to employ people who can help me do the ground work. I don’t want to only be the person behind the project, I want to be a part of it. So I always spend some time doing field work every year.
The graphs and data is then used to write research papers. When they finish a paper, they hang it on this wall.
Q: How do you relate to the big questions about nature loss and climate change, do you think about it a lot in your day to day life?
A: I feel a mixture of sorrow, fear, anger and guilt. Half of the emissions we as humans have released in the world have been released after I was born. Most of them after I turned twenty. I feel that the fact that we haven’t done anything to stop this is a collective defeat. We ruin so much for the coming generations.
I think about it in my day to day life. For example when I see Norway's national budget, which came yesterday, my heart sinks. Because I see that the politicians don’t understand the graveness of the situation we are in.
I get frustrated when politicians talk about conserving nature, because they talk about nature reserves. Reserves are to biodiversity what stamp collecting is to the postal service. Reserves can of course be used to protect species and ecosystems that are about to disappear. But if you want a functioning system that can help protect us against climate change you need to arrange for nature to thrive everywhere. It’s possible, and we will get better lives by doing it. But we need to do the job.
It’s the functioning nature that regulates floods and draughts, and that conducts the photosynthesis, which feeds all life on earth, including humans. I’m pro nature reserves, by all means, but we need to protect the functioning nature around us.
Most of the projects Vandvik does have a sampling unit size of 25 x 25 cm. That way she can easily compare them. These cages, which are stored on the roof, are made to protect experiments from grazing animals.This way, they can understand the impact of grazers.
Q: When I first talked to you, you seemed pretty pessimistic on nature's behalf, do you think there is some hope?
A: I know that we can make it turn out well for nature and ourselves t. The big global reports from the IPCC and IPBES, and a lot of research also shows that we have a lot of opportunities for action.
There’s a lot of talk about the world population, but the truth is that the number of people means a lot less than what the richest 1% does. I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but roughly, the richest 1% is responsible for almost all of the natural destruction.
To do something about it, we need to take it seriously. None of the Norwegian politicians are doing this right now. They tell us what they think we want to hear, but then when it comes down to the things that matter, like the budgets and decision-making, it’s business as usual.
The 1,5 and 2 degree scenario is often described as if it was a cliff, which you either fall off of, or not, but it’s a gradient. Every tenth of a degree of warming means that people's lives get worse, and every species lost is lost forever. Today, species go extinct a thousand times faster than natural rates. If we can reduce that to one hundred or five hundred, it’s a victory. Of course, I want it to go down to zero, but it’s not everything or nothing.
Instead of fighting about what the goal should be, we need to start doing something.
Ådne Sandvik Dyrnesli is a BA student at the Academy of Art & Design, Bergen