Climate change may create tipping points for populations, not just species

Oct 20, 2010
A single moss campion plant shows the influence of climate change on entire populations. Credit: Tracy Feldman

(PhysOrg.com) -- As Earth's climate warms, species are expected to shift their geographical ranges away from the equator or to higher elevations.

While scientists have documented such shifts for many and animals, the ranges of others seem stable.

When respond in different ways to the same amount of warming, it becomes more difficult for ecologists to predict future biological effects of climate change--and to plan for these effects.

In a study published this week in the journal Nature, University of Wyoming ecologist Daniel Doak and Duke University ecologist William Morris report on a long-term study of arctic and alpine plants.

The results show why some species may be slow to shift their geographic ranges in the face of climate change, and why we might expect to see sudden shifts as warming continues.

"This study illustrates the critical need for long-term research to address our most pressing ecological challenges," says Saran Twombly, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.

"Without the temporal and spatial scales employed here, we have little hope of understanding the complex ways in which organisms will respond to climate change."

The plant species targeted by Morris and Doak range from populations in the high mountains of Colorado and New Mexico to species growing along the arctic coastline in far northern Alaska.

These regions include habitats that have undergone substantial , leading to the expectation, says Doak, that--especially at the southern edge of their range--populations of the plants should be collapsing.

However, after studying the growth and survival of tens of thousands of individual plants over six years, the researchers show a more complex pattern of responses.

Multi-colored party toothpicks mark individual alpine bistort plants in the Alaskan tundra. Credit: Daniel Doak

At the southern edge of their ranges, the plants indeed show negative effects of warmer conditions, with lower survival.

"But in most years," says Doak, "these effects are balanced by plants in the south growing more rapidly, so that populations there are no less stable than those in the north."

The opposing trends mean that under current conditions, even across the huge range of conditions Morris and Doak studied, populations of these plants are doing equally well across 30 degrees of latitude--one-third the distance from the to the north pole.

However, the researchers' results don't indicate that these plants, or other species, will be unaffected by warming conditions.

By looking at the performance of individual plants in particularly hot and cold years, they found that the compensatory effects across moderately cold to moderately warm years (lower survival balanced by more rapid growth) will not hold up with increased warming.

Instead, in the warmest years at all study sites, both survival and growth of the plants fell.

"Up to a point," says Doak, "we may see little effect of warming for many organisms. But past a climatic tipping point, the balance of opposing effects of warming will likely cease, leading to subsequent rapid declines in populations."

While this tipping point will be different for each species, responses of natural populations to gradual shifts in climate will not necessarily in turn be gradual.

"We shouldn't interpret a lack of ecological response to past warming to mean that little or no effects are likely in the future," says Doak.

The researchers' work also points to a methodology with which to better understand and predict how climate effects on one species will combine to create overall population-wide effects.

"A key part of this approach is the need for long-term studies so we can observe and use the rare years with extreme climates to anticipate what the average future will bring," Doak says.

Explore further: Genetic study shows major impact of climate change on Antarctic fur seals

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User comments : 13

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Shootist
2.3 / 5 (6) Oct 20, 2010
As Earth's climate warms, species are expected to shift their geographical ranges away from the equator or to higher elevations.


We're gonna go aviking, back to Greenland where our fathers lived before it got cold.
Modernmystic
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 20, 2010
During the PETM is when mammals really started to thrive, and it was eleven degrees hotter then than it is now...
Parsec
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 20, 2010
During the PETM is when mammals really started to thrive, and it was eleven degrees hotter then than it is now...

Its true that mammals may be better able to survive warmer conditions that their competitors, but its an open question if warmer temperature actually had anything to do with it. Just because the two events roughly occurred at the same time (within 10-15 million years), it certainly does not follow that either caused or was related in any way to the other.
rvlife
5 / 5 (2) Oct 21, 2010
Right said. The present scenario could be entirely different.
Vendicar_Decarian
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
"During the PETM is when mammals really started to thrive, and it was eleven degrees hotter then than it is now" - Conservative Moron

The PETM was a Mass Extinction event, both in the ocean and to some extend on land.

Advisable not to recreate it.

Further the PETM which had max temps 5'C above the present, not 11, took 20,000 years to reach that temperature extreme, not the 100 years currently projected for the current anthropogenic CO2 event.

I conclude from your statements that a little Conservative ignorance goes a long way.

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
The PETM was a Mass Extinction event, both in the ocean and to some extend on land.

Advisable not to recreate it.


Who says we are?

Further the PETM which had max temps 5'C above the present, not 11,


I don't "do" European, it was 11 degrees F hotter. If you can do the conversions it's obvious.

took 20,000 years to reach that temperature extreme, not the 100 years currently projected for the current anthropogenic CO2 event.


I'm still waiting for the dire predictions that already should have occured to happen, sure as heck not holding my breath for 20 more much less 100.

I conclude from your statements that a little Conservative ignorance goes a long way.



If so then your statements prove socialist ignorance goes a lot further
JRDarby
3 / 5 (2) Oct 21, 2010
...
Who says we are?
...
I don't "do" European, it was 11 degrees F hotter. If you can do the conversions it's obvious.
...
I'm still waiting for the dire predictions that already should have occured to happen, sure as heck not holding my breath for 20 more much less 100.
...
If so then your statements prove socialist ignorance goes a lot further


... First you get defensive about climate change, then you disparage the temperature system EVERYONE else in the world uses but the US, then you make a very disingenuous comment about nothing happening, then you assume anyone who calls you out for your anti-CC rhetoric is a socialist.

WOW.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
... First you get defensive about climate change,


No I didn't. I asked a question.

then you disparage the temperature system EVERYONE else in the world uses but the US,


Disparage is a bit drama-queenish of you, but yeah I like to use the system I was raised with. Sorry if you can't handle that or that means I'm "disparaging" you somehow.

then you make a very disingenuous comment about nothing happening,


Probably because I'm unconvinced anything is. Is any statement that anyone makes disingenuous simply because you disagree with it?

then you assume anyone who calls you out for your anti-CC rhetoric is a socialist.


You got me a little bit there. I just don't like being called a conservative...because I'm not one, and in general don't like them. I guess the lesson here is if you don't want labels applied to you, then you might not want to label others?

WOW.


Methinks you doth protest too much...
Vendicar_Decarian
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
"First you get defensive about climate change, then you disparage the temperature system EVERYONE else in the world uses but the US, then you make a very disingenuous comment about nothing happening, then you assume anyone who calls you out for your anti-CC rhetoric is a socialist." - JRDarby

The ignorance is astounding isn't it. And these people are the ones who have run the American state into the ground through that very same ignorance.

A cull is required.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
"First you get defensive about climate change, then you disparage the temperature system EVERYONE else in the world uses but the US, then you make a very disingenuous comment about nothing happening, then you assume anyone who calls you out for your anti-CC rhetoric is a socialist." - JRDarby

The ignorance is astounding isn't it. And these people are the ones who have run the American state into the ground through that very same ignorance.

A cull is required.


A cull, is that a physical threat?

And I'm the "barbarian" here?

You know if a conservative made a statement like that he'd be accused of being a radical and a terrorist. I suppose because you're a socialist it'll be laughed off...

Guess we'll find out.
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
For the last 30 years, Conservatives have been engaged in wholesale treason against their own nation.

The punishment for treason is death.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Oct 21, 2010
For the last 30 years, Conservatives have been engaged in wholesale treason against their own nation.

The punishment for treason is death.


So are you going to murder some conservatives Vendicar? You having homicidal ideations? Do we need to send some folks with badges to talk to you about this?

You know the punishment for treason, here's some other information you might want to read if you're going to make the kinds of threatening remarks you've been making on this board...

http://www.legalm...eat.html
YSLGuru
1 / 5 (1) Oct 26, 2010
@Modernmystic

Let me apologize for Vendicars comments. We've been so busy here at the, well I can't say where exactly so suffice to say that we've been busy with some changes and so a few of our propagandists on the web did not get informed in a timely manner of the changes. Neither AGW or Climate Change are being used as our standard sales pitch. The new slogan is "Its overpopulation stupid" that we're selling and Vendicars was not yet aware of this.

So lets all just pretend the previous comments never happened and we'll move forward form here with blaming overpopulation for all crisis both real and imaginary.

Thank you for your understanding. And remember that ignorance is bliss.