Climate Change and Ecological Science

One dominant paradigm of the ecological literature at the present time is what I would like to call the Climate Change Paradigm. Stated in its clearest form, it states that all temporal ecological changes now observed are explicable by climate change. The test of this hypothesis is typically a correlation between some event like a population decline, an invasion of a new species into a community, or the outbreak of a pest species and some measure of climate. Given clever statistics and sufficient searching of many climatic measurements with and without time lags, these correlations are often sanctified by p< 0.05. Should we consider this progress in ecological understanding?

An early confusion in relating climate fluctuations to population changes was begun by labelling climate as a density independent factor within the density-dependent model of population dynamics. Fortunately, this massive confusion was sorted out by Enright (1976) but alas I still see this error repeated in recent papers about population changes. I think that much of the early confusion of climatic impacts on populations was due to this classifying all climatic impacts as density-independent factors.

One’s first response perhaps might be that indeed many of the changes we see in populations and communities are indeed related to climate change. But the key here is to validate this conclusion, and to do this we need to talk about the mechanisms by which climate change is acting on our particular species or species group. The search for these mechanisms is much more difficult than the demonstration of a correlation. To become more convincing one might predict that the observed correlation will continue for the next 5 (10, 20?) years and then gather the data to validate the correlation. Many of these published correlations are so weak as to preclude any possibility of validation in the lifetime of a research scientist. So the gold standard must be the deciphering of the mechanisms involved.

And a major concern is that many of the validations of the climate change paradigm on short time scales are likely to be spurious correlations. Those who need a good laugh over the issue of spurious correlation should look at Vigen (2015), a book which illustrates all too well the fun of looking for silly correlations. Climate is a very complex variable and a nearly infinite number of measurements can be concocted with temperature (mean, minimum, maximum), rainfall, snowfall, or wind, analyzed over any number of time periods throughout the year. We are always warned about data dredging, but it is often difficult to know exactly what authors of any particular paper have done. The most extreme examples are possible to spot, and my favorite is this quotation from a paper a few years ago:

“A total of 864 correlations in 72 calendar weather periods were examined; 71 (eight percent) were significant at the p< 0.05 level. …There were 12 negative correlations, p< 0.05, between the number of days with (precipitation) and (a demographic measure). A total of 45- positive correlations, p<0.05, between temperatures and (the same demographic measure) were disclosed…..”

The climate change paradigm is well established in biogeography and the major shifts in vegetation that have occurred in geological time are well correlated with climatic changes. But it is a large leap of faith to scale this well established framework down to the local scale of space and a short-term time scale. There is no question that local short term climate changes can explain many changes in populations and communities, but any analysis of these kinds of effects must consider alternative hypotheses and mechanisms of change. Berteaux et al. (2006) pointed out the differences between forecasting and prediction in climate models. We desire predictive models if we are to improve ecological understanding, and Berteaux et al. (2006) suggested that predictive models are successful if they follow three rules:

(1) Initial conditions of the system are well described (inherent noise is small);

(2) No important variable is excluded from the model (boundary conditions are defined adequately);

(3) Variables used to build the model are related to each other in the proper way (aggregation/representation is adequate).

Like most rules for models, whether these conditions are met is rarely known when the model is published, and we need subsequent data from the real world to see if the predictions are correct.

I am much less convinced that forecasting models are useful in climate research. Forecasting models describe an ecological situation based on correlations among the measurements available with no clear mechanistic model of the ecological interactions involved. My concern was highlighted in a paper by Myers (1998) who investigated for fish populations the success of published juvenile recruitment-environmental factor (typically temperature) correlations and found that very few forecasting models were reliable when tested against additional data obtained after publication. It would be useful for someone to carry out a similar analysis for bird and mammal population models.

Small mammals show some promise for predictive models in some ecosystems. The analysis by Kausrud et al. (2008) illustrates a good approach to incorporating climate into predictive explanations of population change in Norwegian lemmings that involve interactions between climate and predation. The best approach in developing these kinds of explanations and formulating them into models is to determine how the model performs when additional data are obtained in the years to follow publication.

The bottom line is to avoid spurious climatic correlations by describing and evaluating mechanistic models that are based on observable biological factors. And then make predictions that can be tested in a realistic time frame. If we cannot do this, we risk publishing fairy tales rather than science.

Berteaux, D., et al. (2006) Constraints to projecting the effects of climate change on mammals. Climate Research, 32, 151-158. doi: 10.3354/cr032151

Enright, J. T. (1976) Climate and population regulation: the biogeographer’s dilemma. Oecologia, 24, 295-310.

Kausrud, K. L., et al. (2008) Linking climate change to lemming cycles. Nature, 456, 93-97. doi: 10.1038/nature07442

Myers, R. A. (1998) When do environment-recruitment correlations work? Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 8, 285-305. doi: 10.1023/A:1008828730759

Vigen, T. (2015) Spurious Correlations, Hyperion, New York City. ISBN: 978-031-633-9438

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