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IRC Partners with Students from Chapman University for Significant Climate Change Research

Chapman University's Schmid College of Science and Technology partners with Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC) to research the thermal tolerance of Orange County’s native plant species and climate change impact.🌡️🌳 #ClimateChange #Conservation

As climate change has certainly shifted the habitat of our bioregion, and more specifically, the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC) has partnered with students from Chapman University’s Schmid College of Science and Technology for a research project to determine the effects of climate’s rising temperatures on plants in the region

Gregory Goldsmith, associate professor of biological sciences at Chapman University, reached out to IRC’s Monitoring and Research team Program Manager, Eliza Hernandez for help with this research project. Students visited various sites within the Landmarks with help from Program Coordinators, Chris Eljenholm and Catherine Le, to practice identifying species, contribute to a restoration project, and ultimately collect their own research data. The students measured 12 different plant species, including Coastal Goldenbush, Black Sage, Sagebrush, Toyon and Coyote Brush. They determined the thermal tolerance of leaves from each species, then sampled various traits to explore which traits may confer higher heat tolerance. 

“It was very rewarding to help Chapman University students with this data collection,” says IRC Program Manager, Eliza Hernandez. “At IRC, we are always thinking about how we can engage students to foster environmental stewardship, so working with Professor Goldsmith and his class on this research project was a great opportunity to inspire future generations.”

The results provide insights into the traits that contribute to plant species’ response to temperature and which species are most likely to be affected by climate change. For example, students found that average leaf thermal tolerance was 48.8 °C (120 °F), but ranged considerably among species from 46.1 °C (115 °F) to 54.1 °C (129 °F). Leaf thermal tolerance indicates the temperature at which the photosynthetic machinery in the leaf begins to break down. Unfortunately, students also made observations using NASA’s ECOSTRESS satellite that show surface temperatures in the area already occasionally exceed 50 °C (122 °F). As temperatures continue to rise globally, it’s important to keep these thresholds in mind to protect the vegetation of the Landmarks. Each one of us can do our part to mitigate the effects of global warming through tactics to reduce our carbon footprint. 

These significant findings are set to be presented at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual conference in Long Beach this August by the Schmid College Chapman University students, with IRC as co-authors. The congregation is the world’s largest meeting of professional ecologists and is expected to attract more than 3,500 participants this year. 

“It was an incredible opportunity for our students to be able to explore their own backyard, to be able to contribute to our understanding of the planet, and to be able to recognize themselves as scientists. We are excited to build an ongoing collaboration,” notes Professor Goldsmith. 

IRC will also present its own findings at the ESA conference. The case study on the impact of large fires during the COVID-19 pandemic on local habitats and wildlife in OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve will be presented by the IRC Monitoring and Research Program. Additionally, the IRC Plant Materials Program will highlight the Native Seed Farm as a model for seed production for restoration and community engagement. IRC is looking forward to sharing its successes and learning with like-minded organizations at the conference.