How will vegetation respond to the climate change?

There is no doubt that climate change continues accelerating globally (IPCC 2021). During the past year, extreme heatwaves in the summer have been observed in China, UK, and other places (Fig. 1). This has led to drought, wildfires, flood from melting glacier, and other adverse outcomes. All environmental changes pose great threat to plants and vegetations, and in turn human wellbeing. Thus, it’s urgent to understand how vegetation will respond to ongoing climate change, so to provides us with scientific guidance and help develop solutions to conserve plants and maintain ecosystem functions.

Fig. 1 The temperature difference between June-August 2022 and 20th-century average (source:

In the face of climate change, the vegetation will alter in three principal ways: 1) plants plasticity; 2) acclimation via offspring; 3) species turnover. Plants, with their current traits values, have reached optimal conditions in fitness and performance after adaptation to previous long-time climate conditions. Under accelerated warming and drying nowadays, some plant traits are capable of adjusting quickly to a fluctuating climate, i.e. photosynthetic traits at weekly to monthly time scale. This process, called plasticity, reflects the ability to shift within an individual species (Vinton et al. 2022). However, it takes longer for hydraulic traits to adjust mainly due to structure effects, resulting in severe consequences, such as plants dieback or mortality (Anderegg et al. 2018; Xu et al. 2021). Plants may also produce offspring with genes that express more suitable traits to the changing climate. Such short-term acclimation helps increase plant fitness. Nevertheless some species may not survive under extreme climate events, leaving gaps or available niches to occur for other species from adjacent areas to occupy. Species turnover or replacement is crucial for vegetation to maintain its functions.

Knowledge about plasticity in plants traits is still unclear and more work needs to be done concerning the response of optimal fitness to climate change. If we can better understand plasticity and optimal fitness of plants under climate change, it will help us better predict vegetation change in the future and provide us with insights into vegetation conservation.


IPCC. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis.

Contribution of Working Group I to the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

Vinton, A. C., Gascoigne, S. J., Sepil, I., & Salguero-Gómez, R. (2022). Plasticity’s role in adaptive evolution depends on environmental change components. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Liu H, Ye Q, Simpson KJ, Cui E, Xia J. 2022. Can evolutionary history predict plant plastic responses to climate change? New Phytologist 235(3): 1260-1271.

Anderegg WRL, Konings AG, Trugman AT, Yu K, Bowling DR, Gabbitas R, Karp DS, Pacala S, Sperry JS, Sulman BN, et al. 2018. Hydraulic diversity of forests regulates ecosystem resilience during drought. Nature 561(7724): 538-541.

Xu H, Wang H, Prentice IC, Harrison SP, Wright IJ. 2021. Coordination of plant hydraulic and photosynthetic traits: confronting optimality theory with field measurements. New Phytologist 232(3): 1286-1296.


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