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Meet the Grantee: Alejandro Ordonez

“Velocity of phytoclimatic change”: New metric to assess ecosystem change developed in cooperation between Bayreuth and Aarhus

In the following joint interview, our Grantee Dr Alejandro Ordonez and his host Dr Timo Conradi share insights into their work on predictions of ecological change and their view on the importance of international research mobility.

Dr. Ordonez

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Alejandro Ordonez: We are trying to figure out how past and future climate change affects the composition of global ecosystems. In this project, we developed a new metric to assess how ecosystems have changed and will change. We call this metric the "velocity of phytoclimatic change". It expresses how fast current vegetation types would need to move and in which directions to assemble the same ecosystem elsewhere as climate conditions change.

Timo Conradi: This view of ecosystem change is new, as it allows us to translate "abstract" metrics of climate change, that is, an increase of 2°C in 100 years, to a value people can relate to, that is, how fast the current landscape will need to move to find a suitable place to exist in the future.

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

AO: Our work is at the intersection of four environmental and natural disciplines. First, we have ecological modelling, as our work builds on our capacity to describe where plants can live based on the limits environmental conditions put in their physiology. Second, we have bio-geography as we are developing metrics to define how fast plant assemblages move, which is one of the three possible responses species could have in the face of change; the other two are adapting and dying. Third is climatology, as we are leveraging the developments in climate models to predict past climates - with "past" meaning: over the last 21,000 years. Last, we have paleoecology, as we need to validate if our metrics of biodiversity change link to the changes we have seen in plant communities over thousands of years.

TC: For us, interdisciplinary means using and linking the methods and knowledge from multiple science disciplines that are usually disconnected so we can shed some light on one of the less understood impacts of the ongoing environmental catastrophe - how nature could look in 100 years.

What is in your opinion the future of your field, and in what way can research in your field contribute to meeting the urgent challenges of our time?

AO: The future of my line of work is translating predictions of ecological change into meaningful metrics that can be used for adapting to ongoing changes and developing adequate policy. Doing this is critical as environmental changes continue to accelerate.

TC: From a more technical and conceptual perspective, a barrier we are trying to push with our work is being able to predict ecological changes from first principles. Doing this is the only way to predict a future we have no current representation of.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

AO: This is a critical part of scientific development. The type of exchanges supported by the Humboldt Center is essential to break away from our "conceptual" bubble and test the strength and limits of our ideas, concepts, and methods. Also, being able to do this in person, after three years of Covid restrictions, reiterate the need for physical proximity to develop new ideas, and have open discussions on a subject.

TC: There is also the possibility of bringing expertise to Bayreuth and exposing students and faculty to these in formal and informal discussions.

What was your personal experience during your stay?

AO: The hospitality of people at the university and outside of it are the two things I cherished the most during my stay. Being away from home is hard, but the people here made it a great time. 

The Grantee

Assistant Professor Alejandro Ordonez (Aarhus University) is a global-change macro-ecologist interested in understanding and predicting future ecosystem behavior in the face of the ongoing and accelerating changes in Earth’s ecological, biogeochemical, climatic and disturbance gradients. For this, he uses a macroecological perspective to quantify and provide scenarios that explain how past climate change and current drivers of biodiversity change (climate change, land degradation and invasive species) have shaped modern diversity patterns; where those changes have led to novel ecosystems emerging; and the implications of such changes for the key ecosystem processes and nature’s contributions to people. As part of his work at the policy-science interphase, he is a coordinating lead author of the upcoming Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Invasive alien species report. Within the framework of ECONOVO, Alejandro will add expertise on climate modeling and invasive plants.

Dr Timo Conradi is a lecturer at the Chair of Plant Ecology, University of Bayreuth.

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