Plants that can predict the weather? Scientists find them in Tibet - and they may have evolved to withstand climate change

Some grass species on Tibetan Plateau can tell when Indian monsoon is coming and go into self-defence mode, Sino-European team finds in breakthrough discovery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 8:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 8:30am

Scientists have for the first time discovered that certain plants possess sophisticated weather-forecasting abilities, a revelation that suggests they may be better equipped to deal with climate change than was previously thought, according to a joint study by Chinese and European researchers.

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Dominant grass species such as bog sedge on the high mountains of Tibet can predict the occurrence of an Indian monsoon and make this known by unfolding their leaves before it hits, the study found.

“They seem to have a sophisticated weather-forecasting system. It’s quite amazing,” said Professor Luo Tianxiang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research in Beijing.

Luo served as the lead scientist of the research team, which recently published its paper in the journal Scientific Reports.

VIEW: Luo’s team also conducted a seven-year experiment on a remote mountain slope in the Tibetan county of Damxung to test their theories

The Indian monsoon ranks as the world’s largest and most sophisticated monsoon system. During the hottest months of the year, it blows from the Indian Ocean to northeasterly regions, bringing a large amount of rainfall. But the dates of its arrival and duration vary from year to year.

Luo’s team analysed observational records from five scientific stations on the Tibetan plateau over the last two decades.

READ MORE: Gone with the wind? Gustier future in China may ease smog in big cities says Tibetan Plateau study

They also conducted a seven-year experiment on a remote mountain slope in Tibet’s Damxung county to test and prove their theories.

One area they were interested in investigating was whether a sudden jump in temperature would interfere with a plant’s biological clock. If so, this would confirm certain fears about the negative impact climate change can have on the ecosystem.

Many plants fold their leaves during the cold and dry winter months to protect themselves. In the event of an exceptionally warm winter, they may even unfold their leaves early, some fear.

The chief difference discovered by Luo’s team was that the plants in Tibet unfold their leaves regardless of the changes in temperature.

“Tibet is a land full of mysteries. Its unique environment might allow plants to develop special abilities after millions of years of evolution,” said Luo.

Many questions about the newly discovered phenomenon remain unanswered.

For example, scientists are still trying to figure out how the alpine meadows on the Tibetan Plateau synchronise their biological clocks with the vapour that builds up thousands of kilometres away over the Indian Ocean.

Many experts have voiced concern that the ecosystem on the plateau may prove the most sensitive and fragile to climate change, due partly to the high altitude.

But it seems they may have underestimated the resilience of the plants in the region, which likely experienced numerous periods of climate change before the first humans even appeared.

Being the fittest, the species that survived until the modern day may possess more weapons to battle climate change than we are aware of, Luo said.

But the team said many questions remain. Only further study would determine whether there is something unique about the molecular mechanism of the plants in Tibet that enables them to forecast the coming monsoon, they said.

Certain grass species may adopt a complicated “algorithm” to calculate the timing of a monsoon using a wide range of variables such as the angle of the sun and the speed of the wind, the team speculated.

To confirm this, they would need a genetic map of the whole plant to study its traits, they said.

But little is known about many of the wild plants in Tibet, they added.