Species respond to climate change in a variety of ways. Throughout natural history, climate has influenced evolutionary processes of species, affecting their diversity and how they interact. Changing climatic conditions lead to ecological consequences that may pose a risk or an opportunity to different species of plants and animals. Fortunately, these changes can be mapped in space, allowing scientists to see how and where suitable climate spaces for species are shrinking or expanding, which can help inform conservation planning.
Here is a hypothetical two-dimensional climate space of a region at two time periods using temperature and rainfall. According to Dr Ralf Ohlemüller and other researchers, ‘species will have to adapt to disappearing and novel climate conditions at the edges of the region’s original climate space’.
When applying climate space analyses to ecological questions, three main things matter to species: the extent of areas with particular climate conditions, how far away these areas are, and whether there are any obstacles in the direction of these areas. Over time, the extent of climatic niche space will expand or shrink; some climates will disappear while other, novel combinations of climatic factors will emerge (see the figure). Patterns of novel and disappearing climates under future climate change have been modeled at the global (5), continental (6), and regional scale (7). The spatial extent of particular climatic conditions will affect the geographic distribution of species occupying this niche space. For instance, there is evidence that rare, small-range species are mostly found in currently rare, spatially restricted climates (8). Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1214215
In order to conserve species, research into climate space can be used to inform environmental policy decision-making as it is not only current conditions that influence biodiversity, such as patterns of local (endemic) species, but also past conditions. Threats exist to native species of plants and animals where they are forced to move due to changing average temperatures, especially those that are less mobile like amphibians. On the contrary, areas where temperatures change very little and similar climates are within reach are ‘safe havens’ for species.
Mapping changing climate space can aid countries throughout the world in conservation planning as the survival of species is dependent upon the existence of suitable climates. But while mapping changes in climate space is important for conservation, there are also caveats to climate space analyses that need to be considered. We must understand that climate space research is only as good as the climate data it is based upon. Also, shifts in climate space should be used with caution when inferring where species will migrate as this depends on their migration and dispersal capacity. Finally, because species are often able to adapt to new environmental conditions they may be able to endure changing temperatures or occupy an entirely new climate space(s).
Understanding where current climate spaces are disappearing and where new ones are developing is important not only for conservation, but also in understanding the wider scope of climate change impacts on a diverse variety of ecosystems.
For the latest results from this research read Climate-driven species migration: from source to sink and back.
Running Out of Climate Space. Science
Ohlemuller, R. (2011). Running Out of Climate Space Science, 334 (6056), 613-614 DOI: 10.1126/science.1214215