Researchers report on 40 years of ecological research, effects of climate change

American Institute of Biological Sciences

As global warming accelerates, it is increasingly clear that climate change is affecting our planet on every scale, from global shifts in weather patterns to local ecosystem changes. In a special section in BioScience, a group of authors hailing from the US National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network synthesize insights from 40 years of long-term ecological research on how ecosystems are responding to climate change. The long duration of this research allows for both spatial and temporal analyses of change, and “enhances the impacts of science on environmental policy relative to short-term studies.”

According to the special section authors, although the variety of ecosystems have some responses in common, most ecosystem responses to climate change are unique and are the result of a combination of region-specific drivers, human activities, and interactions between multiple climate drivers. In the lead peer-reviewed article, Julia Jones of Oregon State University and Charles Driscoll of Syracuse University introduce and describe the section, explaining the conceptual framework behind the processes driving these ecosystem changes and the logistics of and varied results from the 28 LTER research sites that were used to collect the data.

A contribution from Hugh Ducklow (Columbia University) and colleagues describes the varied ocean ecosystem responses to climate change, as well as broader and more consistent marine physical system changes, such as declining sea ice and changes in the ocean surface layer. Tackling coastal ecosystems, Daniel C. Reed (Marine Science Institute) and colleagues use long-term ecosystem research at seaside sites to demonstrate the importance of site-based, long-term research for understanding the “natural capacity of coastal ecosystems to resist and adapt to climate change and the types of human interventions that effectively mitigate them.”

Back on land, Amy R. Hudson (US Department of Agriculture) and colleagues compare diverse drylands’ responses, revealing consistent warming across sites but variability in droughts and their subsequent effect on primary production. Discussing forest and freshwater ecosystems, John L. Campbell of the USDA Forest Service and colleagues delve into how these tightly linked ecosystems are directly and indirectly impacted by climate change, and how primary production is being affected.

The special section is rounded out by a Viewpoint article from Michael Paul Nelson of Oregon State University, who reflects on environmental scientists’ duty to not only tell the stories of climate impacts but also advocate for mobilization and change. In Nelson’s words, “our love and knowledge create a new kind of work for us in the face of the climate crisis. Beyond the work of revealing and explaining our ecosystems, we are called also to do the work of caretakers for those ecosystems.”

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