Parallel regions

Tom Mitchell
Mon, 23 Nov 2009 09:47:49 PST
One of the odd things about gardening in Britain, which is like  
nowhere else on earth in the unremitting dreariness of its climate,  
is that we can successfully grow a very wide range of plants  
outdoors, including many from regions with unrecognisably different  
climates. Perhaps this has more to do with the mulish refusal to  
accept defeat of some British gardeners than the natural propensity  
of, say, Juno irises to grow in the soggy conditions that we can  
offer them. Given our relatively impoverished native flora (those  
pesky ice ages) it is ironic that such diversity of plants will  
thrive, or at least survive, with some help. Some of the greatest  
challenges to extending the range of plants that can be grown well  
are low summer temperatures; the frequent absence of long periods of  
cold; stop-start springs and, at least in my case, wet soil in  
winter, but not hardiness.

A project that I have been pondering for some time might be relevant  
to this discussion. It concerns the potential for using geographic  
information systems like Google Earth to visualise 'parallel  
regions'. Because GIS systems superimpose layers of different  
information, it should be possible (easy even) to redraw the map of  
the world based on whatever criteria you like. For example, if the  
data existed, one could ask the system to display all regions of the  
world lying between 500m and 1,000m asl, with a winter minimum  
temperature higher than -10 degrees Centigrade, with a certain  
minimum number of degree days in summer, overlying calcareous rocks...

A fascinating extension of this idea would be to see the world  
geographically from the 'perspective' of a particular plant species.  
I suspect that this would immediately resolve many currently puzzling  
aspects of plant distribution. We are used to seeing distribution  
maps as shaded areas or dots superimposed on a map of land above  
current sea level. But if you're an alpine bulb restricted to basic  
soils above 2,000m, then the world 'looks' like a series of tiny  
isolated islands with huge gulfs between them. Extending the idea  
further, now probably into the realms of fantasy, wouldn't it be  
great to run the image back in time, seeing how the world view of a  
particular species has changed over geological time with continental  
drift and changing sea levels? As a way of understanding patterns of  
plant evolution this would be very powerful.

The technology to do all of this is well established and, for all I  
know, is already available (please let me know if you have come  
across it) but I imagine that the data for some of the interesting  
'layers' on my hypothetical map would be patchy at best. I'd be very  
interested in corresponding with anyone who thinks this sort of  
project might work.

Best wishes,


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