Research reveals nature’s climate change pathways

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Research reveals nature’s climate change pathways


Published on 10 February 2014

A University of the Sunshine Coast academic has helped lead an international research project that has, for the first time, comprehensively mapped how the natural world is likely to respond to global warming due to climate change.

USC’s Associate Professor in Biostatistics Dr David Schoeman is among 21 authors of a paper, “Geographical limits to species-range shifts are suggested by climate velocity”, published today in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

The researchers used 50 years of observed temperature data, together with models for future temperatures, to estimate the speed and direction of climate change and determine the “climate pathways” that land-based and marine species will need to follow to stay within their optimum temperature ranges.

It highlights areas around the world where species diversity is likely to increase, decrease or remain stable, as well as sites where some animals and plants will face localised extinction if their migration is blocked geographically and they cannot adapt to rising temperatures.

Dr Schoeman helped conceptualise, conduct and illustrate numerical analyses for the study, led by Professor Michael Burrows of the Scottish Marine Institute and involving researchers from Australia (including from the CSIRO), the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia.

The USC academic said the research was based on the understanding that temperature played at least some role in determining the distributions of most plants and animals.

“Under this assumption, we recognised that simply modelling the speed and direction at which temperature contours traverse the surface of the earth (i.e. the velocity of climate change) should provide a good first approximation of where ecological rearrangements might be most intense,” he said.

“We looked at how far you’d have to go, and in what direction, to stay at the same temperature. So, if a species requires a certain temperature range for a successful life, is there a way for it to navigate across the land or seascape to stay within that range?

“If there’s a geographical barrier, like a coastline or a mountain range, some species won’t be able to make that jump. We’ve highlighted the places on the planet which will be difficult for climate migrants to reach.”

The study pinpoints some areas, like the Gulf of Carpentaria, as “sinks” where diversity will intensify as marine species are trapped by the geography of the coastline.

It highlights “climate corridors”, like parts of Bass Strait, through which species migration is likely to be channelled, and areas of “converging” and “diverging” climate, like the east coast of Australia, where climate-driven migration is expected to be rapid.

And there are “climate sources”, like the coastline of southern Australia, where many of the endemic marine species will probably be forced to adapt to survive as temperature contours head offshore.

Professor Burrows, who visited USC last month, said the research would become a valuable tool for future scientific studies into specific animals and plants by helping to predict the future speed and direction of their temperature range shifts.

He said the research could also prove valuable in assisting conservation initiatives or even for commercial decision-making, in industries like fisheries.

“You can interpret these changes as opportunities,” he said. “In some cases, global warming is opening up new opportunities for biodiversity. But it’s also causing problems for species that are already close to their upper thermal limits.

“It’s true that most things can adapt within a certain range of temperatures. But once you get outside the thermal limits for that species, the species will disappear. There are limits to adaptation.”

— Terry Walsh

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