Science News

Ecosystem climate sensitivity map

Fri, 19th Feb 2016

Chris Smith

A map charting the ecosystems most vulnerable to a changing climate has been produced by scientists in Norway.

Many make the assumption that climate change means that places will become warmer; and indeed some will.

But more important in some ways is how the climate in a particular geography might become more variable. Because, if the temperatures, cloud cover and rainfall become less predictable and operate over a greater range than they have historically, this could affect how the ecosystems - the web of plant and animal life - in those areas can operate.

Previously, whether this was the case wasn't known. Now scientists have taken the first steps towards studying whether this is a real risk and highlighting those areas we need to worry about.

Writing in Nature, Alastair Seddon, from the University of Bergen, has used 14 years of satellite images covering the entire globe to assess the responses of ecosystems to climate variability on the ground.

What the satellites "see" is how green an area is, and from this Seddon deduced the health of the vegetation and therefore also the ecosystem as a whole.

Marrying these data to climate information, including measures such as temperature, cloud cover and rainfall, as well as how these parameters varied year on year, enabled Seddon to to compile what he dubs a Vegetation Sensitivity Index (VSI), which records how susceptible a given geography is to climate variation secondary to change.

Seven regions emerged as showing the greatest susceptibility to changes in climate.

These were the Arctic tundra, parts of the boreal forest, tropical rainforests, alpine regions worldwide, the steppe and prairie regions of central Asia and North and South America, the forests of South America, and eastern areas of Australia.

However, Seddon acknowledges that the study considers only recent time points, and might be limited by what one can learn from a satellite.

To address this, he's now launching a new study looking at pollen grains locked away in lake sediments dating back thousands of years to see whether historic climate variations are reflected in this record too and therefore whether the same regions are highlighted as vulnerable by this independent measure.


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