Hot town, summer in the city

Climate change represents the most significant threat to biodiversity our world is facing. Temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more common. Organisms that have evolved over millennia are often unable to adapt at the rapid pace that climate change is setting. This is changing the face of our planet on a massive scale.

Cities provide environments that facilitate even greater temperature extremes. Concrete, tarmac, buildings and traffic pollution affect temperature, water availability, light and wind speed. This both traps and amplifies heat – a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. Under these conditions, you could be forgiven for thinking that the biodiversity of cities would be lower than the surrounding landscape. Surprisingly, the opposite is often true. Cities benefit from the introduction of non-native plant species, many of which originate from warmer climates. Where native species struggle, these plants are more likely to thrive. Cities have therefore become glimpses into future biodiversity that could be replicated across our broader landscape.

Dr Georgina Southon is looking into the potential use of these environments as a source of heat-adapted biodiversity. She says “Climate change has already wiped out vast swathes of biodiversity across the planet. We must do more to tackle this. But we also need to accept the reality: our climate is already warmer than it used to be and over the coming Centuries, temperatures are predicted to rise further. We therefore need to look at the role of non-native plant species in a different light. Urban areas could be a vital source of heat-adapted organisms that have the potential to deliver vital ecosystem services under climate conditions that will challenge many native species.”

Georgina’s research aims to find out whether temperature is a driver of change in urban plant communities. By linking plant distribution, landcover and climate data, her research will evaluate whether plants have become more heat-adapted over time. This would give weight to the argument that cities should be seen as a source of ‘climate change ready’ plants that could play a role in maintaining future ecosystem resilience.

Georgina started her career with a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. After working in London, she then returned to University to study horticulture, followed by a Masters in Plant Diversity and a PhD in Ecosystems. Georgina moved to Yorkshire where she took on her first postdoctoral position, continuing her research into ecosystems.  During this time Georgina’s daughter was born and, having initially switched to working part time, at the end of the contract decided to become a full-time parent.

When Georgina’s daughter started school, she felt it was the right time to return to research. However, she found it difficult to find opportunities within commutable distance and her four year career break left her less competitive against candidates coming straight from another research post. Georgina found out about the Daphne Jackson Trust when researching STEM returner schemes and applied for an advertised York sponsored Fellowship in 2019.

Georgina started her University of York and NERC sponsored Fellowship in October 2020.