Marine life feeling the heat from climate change

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Marine life feeling the heat from climate change


5 August 2013

A University of the Sunshine Coast academic has played a key role in a major international study that has shown marine life is moving much faster towards the earth’s poles than land-based life in response to climate change.

The research, featured today in scientific journal Nature Climate Change, was led by CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship and University of Queensland marine ecologists Dr Elvira Poloczanska and Associate Professor Anthony Richardson.

The extensive, three-year study found that warming oceans are impacting the breeding patterns and distribution of marine life, effectively re-arranging the broader marine landscape.

Nineteen researchers from Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and South Africa were involved, including USC’s Associate Professor in Biostatistics David Schoeman.

Dr Schoeman helped to conceptualise, conduct and illustrate numerical analyses for the study, using a database of 1,735 marine biological responses to climate change published in peer-reviewed literature.

The USC academic also helped develop the structure and content of the report, which states that marine species are shifting their geographic distribution towards cooler regions at a much faster rate than their land-based counterparts.

“We found that, on average, marine organisms are moving 3-10 times faster than land-based organisms,” Dr Schoeman said. “They are moving at a rate of 30-72km per decade, compared with estimates of 6-16km per decade for land-based species.”

“We also found that the timing of seasonal events, like breeding and blooming, is changing faster in the ocean than on land, although only slightly.”

In a statement from CSIRO, Dr Poloczanska said although the study reported global impacts, there was strong evidence of change in the Australian marine environment.

She said tropical and subtropical species of fish, molluscs and plankton from Australia’s south-east were shifting much further south through the Tasman Sea. And in the Indian Ocean, there is a southward distribution of sea birds as well as loss of cool-water seaweeds from regions north of Perth.

“Essentially, these findings indicate that we are seeing widespread reorganisation of marine ecosystems, with likely significant repercussions for the services these ecosystems provide to humans,” she said.

“For example, some of the favourite catches of recreational and commercial fishers are likely to decline, while other species, not previously in the area, could provide new fishing opportunities.”

Dr Schoeman, who moved to USC from the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in mid-2012 as a Fellow under the Collaborative Research Networks (CRN) program, said he was proud to have been involved in such a significant study that began at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in the United States.

“This is the first global meta-analysis of marine ecological impacts of climate change, and will set the standard for work to come,” he said.

— Terry Walsh

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