On Ecological Climate Change Research

The media world is awash in climate change articles and warnings. When your town is faced with the fourth one-in-100-year-flood or your favourite highway has been washed away, you should perhaps become aware that something is changing rapidly. Ecologists are aware of the problems that climate change is producing, and the question I want to raise here is what kind of research is needed to outline current and future problems and suggest possible solutions. This fact of current climate change means that each of us has something important to do at the individual level to reduce the impacts of climate change, like taking the bus or bicycling. But that is another whole set of social issues that I cannot cover here.

The first thing most scientific organizations want to do when faced with a big problem is to have endless meetings about the problem. This unfortunately eats up much money and produces little understanding except that the problem is complicated and multidimensional. Ecological research on climate change must begin with the axiom that climate change is happening rapidly, and that we as ecological scientists can do nothing about this at the level of climate physics. Given this, what are we to do? The first approach we could take is to ignore climate change and carry on with normal research agendas. This works very well for short term problems on the time scale of 20-30 years. Since this is the research lifespan of most ecological scientists, it is not an unreasonable approach. But it does not help solve the earth’s future problems, and this is not a desirable path to take in science.

There are three broad problems that accompany climate change for ecological science. First, geographical ranges of species will shift. We have from paleoecology much information on some of these changes since the last Ice Age. Data from palaeontology is less useful to planning, given that we have enough problems trying to forecast the next 100 years of change. So, we have major ecological question #1 – what limits the geographical distributions of species? This relatively simple question is greatly confounded by human activities. If we send oil and other chemical pollution out onto a coastal coral reef, we should not be surprised if the local distribution of sea life is affected. For ecologists this class of problems of distribution changes caused by human activities is a very important focus of research. If you doubt this, read about Covid viruses. But there is also a large area of research needed to estimate the possible changes in geographic distributions of organisms that are not immediately affected by human activities. How fast will tree species colonize up-slope in mountains around the globe, and how will this affect the bird and mammals that depend on trees or the vegetation types the trees displace? These changes are local and complex, and we can begin by describing them, but to understand the limiting factors involved in changes in geographical distributions is not easy.

Population ecology addresses the second central question of ecology: what causes changes in the abundance of particular species? While we need answers to this simple question for our conservation and management issues, population ecology is an even bigger minefield for research on the effects of climate change. There is no doubt that climate in general can affect the abundance and changes in abundance of organisms, but the complications lie in determining the detailed mechanisms of explaining these changes in abundance. Large scale climate indicators like ENSO sometimes correlate positively with animal population increases, sometimes negatively, and sometimes not at all in different populations (Wan et al. 2022). Consequently, a changing climate may not have a universal effect on biodiversity. This means we must dive into details of how climate affects our specific population, is it via maximum temperatures?, minimum temperatures?, dry season rainfall?, wet season rainfall? etc., and each of these aspects of weather have many subcomponents – March temperatures, April temperatures, etc. and the search for an explanation can thus become infinite. The problem is that the number of possible explanatory variables in weather dwarfs the number of years of observations of our study species (c.f. Ginzburg and Jensen 4004, Loken and Gelman 2017). The result is that some of the strongest papers with conclusions about the impact of climatic change on animals can be in error (Daskalova. Phillimore, and Myers-Smith 2021). The statistical pitfalls have been discussed for many years (e.g., Underwood and Chapman 2003) but are still commonly seen in the ecological literature today.

A third central question is that each population is embedded in a community of other species which may interact so that we must analyse the changes occurring community and ecosystem dynamics. Changes in biological communities and ecosystems are subject to complications arising from climate change and more because of species interactions which are not easy to measure. These difficulties do not mean that we should stop trying to explain population and community changes that might be related to climate change. What it does mean is that we should not jump to strong conclusions without considering all the alternate possible agents that are changing the earth’s biomes. The irony is that the human caused shifts are easy to diagnose but difficult to fix because of economics, while the pure climate caused shifts in ecosystems are difficult to diagnose and to validate the exact mechanisms involved. We need both strong involvement in diagnosing the major ecological problems associated with climate change, but this must be coupled with modesty in our suggested conclusions and explanations. There is much to be done.

Daskalova, Gergana N., Phillimore, Albert B., and Myers-Smith, Isla H. (2021). Accounting for year effects and sampling error in temporal analyses of invertebrate population and biodiversity change: a comment on Seibold et al. 2019. Insect Conservation and Diversity 14, 149-154. doi: 10.1111/icad.12468.

Ginzburg, L. R. and Jensen, C. X. J. (2004). Rules of thumb for judging ecological theories. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19, 121-126. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2003.11.004.

Loken, Eric and Gelman, Andrew (2017). Measurement error and the replication crisis. Science 355, 584. doi: 10.1126/science.aal3618.

Underwood, A. J. and Chapman, M. G. (2003). Power, precaution, Type II error and sampling design in assessment of environmental impacts. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 296, 49-70. doi: 10.1016/s0022-0981(03)00304-6.

Wan, Xinru, Holyoak, Marcel, Yan, Chuan, Maho, Yvon Le, Dirzo, Rodolfo, et al. (2022). Broad-scale climate variation drives the dynamics of animal populations: A global multi-taxa analysis. Biological Reviews 97. (in press).