Termite mounds to forecast climate change

Termite mounds to forecast climate change

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South Africa: Scientists have found an innovative way to gauge whether climate change is affecting African grassland terrains or not – by keeping a watch at the places where termites build their mounds.

As African grassland terrains are difficult to map because of dense forest cover, scientists at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology in Palo Alto, California have used the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, an airborne mapping system that works much like a diagnostic medical scan and can penetrate the tree canopy to the soil level. The mapping system creates a three-dimensional map of the vegetation and terrain.

“By understanding the patterns of the vegetation and termite mounds over different moisture zones, we can project how the landscape might change with climate change,” one of the scientists at Carnegie, Greg Asner, said.

The advantage of tracking the mounds is that unlike plants, which vary depending on whether it’s the wet or the dry season, they are more constant.

Termite mounds in Africa wax and wane according to annual rainfall, they discovered, allowing their use as a predictor of ecologic shifts due to climate change. The research is published in the September 7, 2010 advanced online edition of Nature Communications.

The researchers mapped more than 40,000 termite mounds covering 192 square miles of Savanna in Kruger National Park in South Africa.

They found three distinct ecosystems – Well-drained upslope sides of hills, where trees are in plenty; wetter, downside slopes which are preferred by grasses; and not too wet, not too dry well-drained soil where mound-building termites build nests.

Source: USA Today