NASA: Climate Change May Flip 40% of Earth’s Major Ecosystems This Century

by Rolf Schuttenhelm, cross-posted from Bits of Science

The results of studies that try to quantify the effects of climate change on biodiversity loss — which include damage to the micro scale level of subspecies and genetic variation — are perhaps most shocking.

When, however, you focus on the response to climate change at the macro level, the ecosystem level, you get a better understanding of what is one of the major drivers of that biodiversity loss: forced migrations. And even here, the numbers may be larger than one would expect, as a new assessment by NASA and Caltech published in the journal Climatic Change shows that by 2100 some 40 percent of “major ecological community types” – that is biomes like forest, grassland, tundra – will have switched to a different such state.

According to the same study most of the land on Earth that is not currently desert or under an icecap will undergo at least a 30 percent change in vegetation cover.

Ecological damage is the real climate problem

Based on IPCC temperature projections for 2100 [which are probably on the conservative side] of 2-4 degrees Celsius warming scientists of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology ran special computer models to calculate the most probable ecosystem responses across the planet. This average temperature rise is of similar magnitude to the warming that occurred between the Last Glacial Maximum and the onset of the (milder) Holocene – with the big exception that the current warming is happening about 100 times faster – and for ecology that makes a huge difference, the authors stress.

“While warnings of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and other environmental changes are illustrative and important, ultimately, it’s the ecological consequences that matter most,” says John Bergengren from Caltech, who led the study.

It is not just species that have slowly evolved around specific climatic values, the same goes for ecosystems. As another study, recently published in Science, shows tropical biomes like rainforest, savanna and desert are tied to specific climate tipping points. When certain climatic thresholds are crossed the one ecosystem can suddenly switch to the other, as intermediate states somehow prove to be non-existent.

Migrations will crisscross

As ecosystems shift on a timescale of centuries or less, species cannot adapt [because the required structural evolution takes millions of years] so they have to start moving to find other suited habitat, resembling their original climate and vegetation zones. For most species this requires migration towards the poles – but of course our planet’s many features, from mountain ranges, rivers and coastlines, to areas with high human population density and anything from agricultural plains to highways, industries and parking lots, greatly increases the extinction risk for individual species.

Perhaps somewhat harder to envision for us is that [as other new research shows] under continued climate change marine species face similar migratory distances – as the complexity of that blue world below the waterline is not limited to the presence of salty water, and finding replacement ecosystems may be equally challenging for a coral fish as it is for an orangutan.

The fact that some species are much better capable of migrating than others will likely only increase ecological imbalances and the risk of dangerous ecosystem plague damage.

Most sensitive climate hotspots

The new study by NASA and Caltech defines as ecologically sensitive hotspots – areas projected to undergo the greatest degree of species turnover – regions in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau [as this ‘third pole’ is in fact to be considered a climatic island], eastern equatorial Africa [which has an unstable drought-sensitive climate], Madagascar, the Mediterranean region, southern South America, and North America’s Great Lakes and Great Plains areas. The largest areas of ecological sensitivity and biome changes predicted for this century are found in areas with the most dramatic climate change: in the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes, particularly along the northern and southern boundaries of taiga or boreal forests.

Rolf Schuttenhelm is a climate analyst at MeteoVista and a Science Writer for Bits of Science, where this piece was originally published.

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20 Responses to NASA: Climate Change May Flip 40% of Earth’s Major Ecosystems This Century

  1. John Tucker says:

    “This average temperature rise is of similar magnitude to the warming that occurred between the Last Glacial Maximum and the onset of the (milder) Holocene – with the big exception that the current warming is happening about 100 times faster – and for ecology that makes a huge difference, the authors stress.”

    This is why even just slowing climate change a bit is so important.

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    A normally functioning biome has redundancies built in, and is resiliant to a huge degree. We have changed that.

    The worlds biosphere is a very stressed, very complex and extremely interdependent system. Our monocultures, fences, cities and roads add to the blockages in nature: montains, seas and rivers.

    Now consider the idea of catastrophic, cascade of failure. Having unknowingly destroyed the redundancies, the loss of another seemingly insignificant species could have consequences beyond our imagination.

    Consider the importance of the bee, and be scared.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Forests will be the most dramatically affected. We’ve seen it already in beetle kills and fires in North America, and this is all just getting started.

    Trees grow very slowly in northern latitudes- a 14″ diameter spruce that we cut in the Yukon might be 200 years old. Migrating species can’t replace forests fast enough, whether the cause is logging or global warming caused tree death. Trees also require a large cast of supporting creatures, including fungi, birds, and much else. Immediate consequences will be another feedback, as major forests switch to carbon sources.

    We need to both stop burning fossil fuels and leave existing forests alone. That’s a tall order, but we soon will have no choice.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    “Very wet rain events are the trigger,” said Wdowinski, associate research professor of marine geology and geophysics at the UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “The heavy rain induces thousands of landslides and severe erosion, which removes ground material from the Earth’s surface, releasing the stress load and encouraging movement along faults.”

    Wdowinski and a colleague from Florida International University analyzed data from quakes magnitude-6 and above in Taiwan and Haiti and found a strong temporal relationship between the two natural hazards, where large earthquakes occurred within four years after a very wet tropical cyclone season.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    They don’t include trees lost to drought-induced wildfire – an estimated 1.5 million trees burned in the Bastrop Labor Day fires alone – or trees that have succumbed to heat and thirst in urban areas.

    Though the estimated range of dead trees varies widely, from a low of 100 million to a high of 500 million, the visible evidence of the die-off is still “very shocking,” said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service. “It’s a significant change in the landscape.”

    And the stress of the past year of record-setting heat, high winds and low rainfall will continue to take its toll on living trees, whether or not the drought continues as forecast for at least another six months, because they have been too weakened to survive.

    “We recognize that the mortality will increase even if it started raining,” said Burl Carraway, head of sustainable forestry for the Forest Service.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Tree mortality is up 59% from 1986 to 2006, the most recent recorded reporting year, according to USFS. That’s a huge jump. The Forest Service has timber industry tentacles, and is agnostic about the causes, but this is unlikely to be a case of natural variability.

  7. Leif says:

    So as all that extra water from increases deluges get absorbed into the soil, which is now further logged of trees. The earth becomes wetter as it also becomes heaver, and slipperier, voila…, massive land slides with an equally massive shift in gravitational forces, and bingo, earthquakes. So global warming could in a very real sense, help to trigger earthquakes! Normally with trees in the mix, they would be drinking much of that water and passing much of that again into the air as increased water vapor and rain fall for forests and ecosystems down the line.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’ve hit the nail right into the lid, there, with your ‘cascade’ analogy. It’s not just climate destabilisation. It’s not just ocean acidification, or tropospheric ozone pollution, or ocean dead-zones, or biodiversity loss, or the derangement of the nitrogen, phosphorus and hydrological cycles etc, but it’s all of them acting together and synergising each other. The collapse of complex systems is rapid and like an avalanche, once started it cannot be restrained. And it has started.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The timber industry doesn’t care about trees, let alone the patsies of the ‘timber communities’ who they trot out for astro-turfing purposes. Like all capitalists they care only for money, profit, power and dominance over others, the better to pursue their real priorities. Once the trees are all gone, they’ll move their capital elsewhere, and the ‘timber communities’ will be left to rot.

  10. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Is this report not alarming? Time Nations take effective steps.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP),India

  11. prokaryotes says:

    It appears that if the climate change threat is not dealt with sooner, we flip the main predator species of planet earth too.

  12. Sailesh Rao says:

    Couple that with rising food prices and food insecurity and the ecosystems don’t stand a chance. They will be razed down to grow crops to feed cattle, etc. as droughts increase around the world and food prices ratchet up. The only saving grace is that we are currently appropriating enough calories from Nature to feed 30 billion vegans, but we are doing a poor job of feeding 7 billion humans because we are busy converting 80% of that phyto-mass energy to animal foods at an abysmal conversion ratio of 26 to 1. Unless we stop that practice and begin returning land back to Nature as the consumption of animal foods diminishes, I would think that NASA’s analysis is moot as there won’t be such ecosystems to fail by 2050, much less 2100.

  13. catman306 says:

    Moscow has Mildest December in 113 Years

    MOSCOW — Russian meteorologists recorded the mildest temperatures for 113 years in the capital Moscow, registering 4.1 Celsius (39.4 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.

    “At 1:00 am (2100 GMT Monday), a temperature of 4.1 degrees Celsius was recorded Tuesday, beating the 1898 record of 3.3 degrees in December,” in Moscow, a spokeswoman for the city’s weather centre told AFP.

    “In the morning, the temperature dropped slightly, but we forecast between three and four degrees in the day…,” she added, and it was entirely possible that the record would be broken again in Moscow.

    The average temperature in Moscow for the month of December was minus 7.4 degrees Celsius, the spokeswoman added.

    Torrential rain in Moscow on Monday evening have combined with melting snow to produce huge puddles in the streets of the capital.

    Sourced from Agence France Presse
    Posted at December 27, 2011, 9:19 am

  14. dbmetzger says:

    another offshoot of…
    Japan Tsunami Debris Starts to Hit US Coast
    As much as 20 million tons of debris is estimated to have washed out to sea when the tsunami struck Japan in March. Now the first traces are appearing on the other side of Pacific ocean, on US and Canadian shores.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘As ye sow so shall ye reap’-the whirlwind, apparently. ‘He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind..’ If this world is our house, then we have sorely troubled it, and the wind is rising.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If the debris has really traveled across the Pacific already, can the radioactive pollution from Fukushima be far behind?

  17. fj says:

    Years back, Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote of this wave of devastation in “The Future of Life.”

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The wind moves faster than the waves, ME

  19. wili says:

    Commenting on the thread about Arctic methane has now been disabled, so this seems the most appropriate spot for this update.

    Revkin has posted a follow up to his earlier article on seabed methane.

    It includes an email reply from Shakhova and Semiletov, the scientists that lead the recent expedition to the Arctic Ocean to research reported dramatic increases in methane releases.

    It’s too long to copy here, but worth a look and a discussion.

  20. welles says:

    Over population of humans is the problem