The Niche Feature
As the climate crisis and ecological collapse deepen, there’s a need to combine the knowledge and efforts of ecologists and climate scientists.
William Farren (ZSL Institute of Zoology and University of Reading)
Elisabeth Thompson (National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Reading)
Vicky Boult (Department of Meteorology, University of Reading)
As the climate crisis and ecological collapse deepen, there’s a need to combine the knowledge and efforts of ecologists and climate scientists. Only with this collaborative approach can we better understand the future of our planet and expedite the planning needed to protect people, species and ecosystems.
Climate science and ecology are inextricably linked when we consider the feedback loops connecting the atmosphere and biosphere: climate ultimately determines the abundance and distribution of species; and ecological processes regulate the physical cycles which affect atmospheric dynamics. An understanding of both disciplines is required if we are to effectively plan for the future of our planet. Unfortunately, in ecological forecasting, climate dynamics are massively oversimplified, and within weather and climate models, ecological processes are often distilled down to a mere stepping stone in climate cycles. Why is this the case? Ecology and climate science are both complex disciplines in their own right, leaving their respective scientists’ little space to fully master the other field. These issues could be hindering potentially planet-saving research, but the solution is simple: interdisciplinary collaboration. In recognition of this, the British Ecological Society, in collaboration with the Royal Meteorological Society, are hosting the Climate Science for Ecological Forecasting symposium in May 2022.
The motivations of ecologists have changed through time. Early “ecologists” (perhaps better referred to as natural historians) were interested in observing and demystifying the natural world. Today, much contemporary ecological research is also guided by the desire to assist the global effort to prevent species extinction and ecosystem collapse. Ecological forecasting has emerged from the need to understand how global change (including climate change) ill impact biodiversity and ecosystem function.
Meteorologists have long sought to understand the Earth’s atmosphere, motivated by the value in correctly predicting the weather. Weather forecasting as its origins in traditional knowledge in which a close relationship with local ecosystems is necessary. The universal benefits of accurate weather predictions have been recognised as far back as Hippocrates, who spoke of the relationship between climate, human health and culture in On Airs, Waters and Places, saying: For knowing the changes of the seasons, the risings and settings of the stars, how each of them takes place, he will be able to know beforehand what sort of a year is going to ensue”.
The scope for application of weather and climate information is vast, encompassing almost all economic and scientific sectors. However, such scope can be a mixed blessing. Climate scientists miss out on the context of the systems their work is applied to, and ‘forecast producers’ (here, meteorologist and climate scientists) become detached from ‘forecast users’ (here, ecologists), leading to a mismatch between the information required and generated.
Climate change and ecology
For many fledgling ecologists, climate change is an abstract and incomprehensible monster: we know it’s coming, we have a rough idea of what happens when it “gets here”, but it’s difficult to truly comprehend. Whilst climate change is described in taught courses as a key threat to biodiversity, climate science is rarely addressed. Climate science and meteorology are deeply rooted in physics, chemistry and mathematics, and to cover such content in ecology would require considerable changes to the curriculum. There is a risk that this problem persists from education through to research. Without an appropriate understanding of climate science, studies which utilise climate projections may misuse them, ultimately leading to the misinterpretation of results.
Forecasting the impacts of climate change on ecology is crucial in the face of rapid global change. A review by Urban et al (2016) distils the complex influence of climate change on ecology into six biological mechanisms: physiology, demography, dispersal, species interactions, evolutionary potential, and environmental deviation. Moreover, in many ways, we would consider ecological niches synonymous with local climate and any alteration of the climate is expected to alter the abundance and distribution of species. This thought process drives ecological forecasting research, but within this framework, there is a tendency to have a profound comprehension of the “effect”: the biological mechanisms, and a loose understanding of the “cause”: climate change. A deeper appreciation of climate science could improve the accuracy of ecological forecasts, so why not involve climate scientists?
What can climate science bring to ecology?
Methods of research focused on ecological responses to climate change can generally be categorised into two approaches, those that observe ecological responses to a climate change proxy, and those that model ecological responses to climate projections. The first works by finding a proxy for climate variance. For example, observing populations at different altitudes or over a long period of time can provide insight on how intraspecific biological mechanisms operate for a range of climatic conditions. Subsequently, the results of these “simulated climate change” studies may inform the second approach: modelling ecological responses to climate projections. Under this approach, the outputs of climate models are used to project future biophysical variables which in turn determine ecological processes (based on the relationship established through simulated climate change studies).
When utilising climate projections, ecologists must select an appropriate climate model. This can be a significant decision: there are numerous climate models which recognise a range of plausible future scenarios. Harris et al (2014) highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of climate models that ecologists may not be immediately aware of. They conclude that better dialogue between climate scientists and ecologists would secure more effective use of climate models in ecological forecasting. We completely agree, but it would be short-sighted to say that this would be the only benefit of interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields.
The adoption of tools developed in meteorology by ecologists is not a new idea. For instance, remote sensing satellite data, a technology that largely originated in weather monitoring, is now commonplace in ecological research. However, while meteorological tools have been adopted in ecology, their forecasting philosophy has not. Ecological forecasting has tended to focus on long-term climate responses, likely in acknowledgment of the potentially lengthy time frame required to implement drastic solutions to prevent species extinction. By contrast, meteorology follows a shorter-term iterative forecasting and verification process, similar to trial and error. This method choice may also be very appropriate in ecological forecasting for two reasons. Firstly, because it expedites a cycle of reassessment and subsequent improvement of forecasts, and second, because it better meets the immediate needs of environmental decision making at more “actionable” time scales. Dietze et al (2018) describe how near-time ecological forecasting can work in practice but suggest that it requires “changes in scientific training, culture, and institutions”.
Finally, there’s something to be said about the interaction between the climate and the functional roles of species. While conservation science highlights the role that species play in maintaining ecosystem function, certain processes are not the result of species interactions nor extreme weather events alone, but rather result from a cumulative interaction of both. A good example is the relationship between elephant herbivory and fire regimes described by Dublin et al (1990): whilst wildfires transform a landscape, elephant activity maintains the new altered state. Such research has largely been handled by ecologists but understanding the climate science driving these interactions is crucial to gain a full view of the future of ecosystem function.
What can ecology bring to climate science?
Just as climate scientists can add value to ecological forecasting, ecologists too can support the development of core accurate climate projections. We mentioned earlier the feedback loops between ecological processes and the climate. In recognition of this, climate scientists are increasingly moving towards better representation of ecological processes in climate projections, adopting an “Earth systems approach”. However, the interactions between the biosphere and atmosphere represent the biggest source of uncertainty in climate projections at centennial timescales. Collaborations with ecologists who have long studied the interactions between species and their ecosystems will not only assist climate scientists in better incorporating such processes into climate projections but may also reveal innovative solutions to addressing the climate crisis.
The way forward
In both ecology and climate science, huge strides have already been made in understanding what the future of our planet may look like. Collaboration between scientists in both disciplines could extend this further. Through the sharing of knowledge, data and practice, there are gains to be made for both ecological forecasting and climate projection.
A joint symposium between the British Ecological Society and the Royal Meteorological Society will take place in London in May 2022. The Climate Science for Ecological Forecasting symposium will be an international and interdisciplinary event bringing together ecologists and climate scientists. Together, attendees will explore the needs and opportunities for greater interaction between the disciplines and establish the cross-disciplinary networks that are necessary to better predict and plan the future of our planet.
- Dietze, M.C., Fox, A., Beck-Johnson, L.M., Betancourt, J.L., Hooten, M.B., Jarnevich, C.S.,
- Keitt, T.H., Kenney, M.A., Laney, C.M., Larsen, L.G. and Loescher, H.W., 2018. Iterative near-term ecological forecasting: Needs, opportunities, and challenges. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(7), pp.1424-1432.
- Dublin, H.T., Sinclair, A.R. and McGlade, J., 1990. Elephants and fire as causes of multiple stable states in the Serengeti-Mara woodlands. The Journal of Animal Ecology, pp.1147-1164.
- Harris, R.M.B., Grose, M.R., Lee, G., Bindoff, N.L., Porfirio, L.L. and Fox-Hughes, P., 2014. Climate projections for ecologists. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5(5), pp.621-637.
- Urban, M.C., Bocedi, G., Hendry, A.P., Mihoub, J.B., Pe’er, G., Singer, A., Bridle, J.R., Crozier, L.G., De Meester, L., Godsoe, W. and Gonzalez, A., 2016. Improving the forecast for biodiversity under climate change. Science, 353(6304).
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