Some of the research at the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience deals specifically with how suitable climates for plants, animals and ecosystems in different parts of the world may change over time due to climate change. Rapid changes in the earth’s climate can create problems for plant and animal species. Species basically have two choices: adapt to the new conditions or relocate and follow the conditions to which they are already adapted to.
Dr. Ralf Ohlemüller, an ecologist with IHRR and School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University, studies how climate change affects biological systems. By mapping climate suitability for plant species, for example, researchers are able to understand how climate change can affect biodiversity or determine suitable climates in the future for different plants. Ohlemüller is also interested in changes in the spatial distribution of climate itself and how this is likely to change in the future.
An example of this work is shown here. Figure 1 shows the present day climate of Europe, with colours indicating the hottest (red) and coldest (blue) temperatures. Figure 2 is a map of the UK projected for 2050 using the same colors for the same temperature ranges. Looking closely, you can see that, for instance the climate we expect to find in northern England in 2050 (yellow areas in Fig. 2) is similar to the climate we currently find in southern England and northern France (yellow areas in Fig. 1). This allows us to map and visualise what sort of future climates we can expect in certain regions. Ohlemüller and other researchers create maps that show how suitable climates for plant species are ‘shrinking’ as some species will need to move further and further from their local environments in order to survive. It is possible that some plants relocating to more suitable climates could become invasive, virtually taking over entire ecosystems. Invasive plants often disrupt the ecology of native plants in the environment, which threatens biodiversity.
Figure 3 shows a map of climatic suitability for English Oak (Quercus robur) in Europe with darker colours indicating more suitable climate conditions. The map on the left shows current climate conditions and the other two maps show future (2050) climate conditions under a moderate and under a more severe greenhouse gas emission scenario. These kinds of maps allow us to visualise and quantify which and how much area will be climatically suitable for a species in the future.
Species with a shrinking climate space may be most at risk from losing sufficient area to sustain viable populations. Using climate forecasts to map out the potential movements of different plant species to more suitable climates can help us understand how to address the complex ecological impacts of climate change on the planet.
For the latest results from this research read Climate driven species migration: from source to sink and back.
For full details and data sources please see: Ohlemüller, R, Gritti, ES, Sykes, MT & Thomas, CD 2006. Quantifying components of risk for European woody species under climate change. Global Change Biology 12(9): 1788-1799
OHLEMULLER, R., GRITTI, E., SYKES, M., & THOMAS, C. (2006). Quantifying components of risk for European woody species under climate change Global Change Biology, 12 (9), 1788-1799 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2006.01231.x