Escape from Climate Change Similar for Land and Sea Life

How fast do animal and plant populations on land have to travel to stay ahead of climate change and remain in the climates they prefer? And how fast is it for plant and animal populations in the oceans? Despite differences in overall warming, the answer, is about the same.

“That average rates of environmental change in the oceans and on land are similar is not such a surprise,” says Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology. “But averages deceive, and this study shows that rates of change are at times greater in the oceans than on land: and as complex as the currents themselves.”

Temperatures on land have warmed by approximately one degree Celsius since 1960, according to many – but not all – scientists and studies, forcing animals and plant populaions to continually adapt or relocate.

This rate is approximately three times faster than the rate of warming in the oceans, however the plant and animal life within the oceans need to move at around the same pace to remain in their preferred environments.

The results of a study supported by the NSF and performed in part through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California at Santa Barbara have shown that movement of 2.7 kilometres (1.6 miles) per year is needed on land to out-run climate change, and movement of 2.2 kilometres (1.3 miles) per year is needed in the oceans.

“Not a lot of marine critters have been able to keep up with that,” says paper co-author John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Being stuck in a warming environment can cause reductions in the growth, reproduction and survival of ecologically and economically important ocean life such as fish, corals and sea birds.”

“These results provide valuable insights into how climate will affect biological communities worldwide,” says David Garrison, director of NSF’s Biological Oceanography Program.

The analysis is an example of the value of synthesis research centers, Garrison says, in addressing society’s environmental challenges.

“With climate change we often assume that populations simply need to move poleward to escape warming, but our study shows that in the ocean, the escape routes are more complex,” says ecologist Lauren Buckley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also a co-author of the paper.

“For example, due to increased upwelling, marine life off the California coast would have to move south [rather than north] to remain in its preferred environment.”

“Some of the areas where organisms would need to relocate the fastest are important biodiversity hot spots, such as the coral triangle region in southeastern Asia,” says lead author Mike Burrows of the Scottish Association of Marine Science.

Source: National Science Foundation
Image Source: Steve Corey

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