Image credit: Roy Anderson, Northern Ireland

Image credit: Roy Anderson, Northern Ireland

Human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems is now leading to major changes in our environment. Because of this we need to understand how species, communities and ecosystems respond to environmental change. This in turn will help us in the management of modern global biodiversity.

Currently, we are still in a position where this isn’t a consideration in any long-term perspective with regard to contemporary thinking on global climate change. Even though the Earth is entering a period of unprecedented climate change, this is not the first time ecosystems have faced disruption that have had global impacts.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth were keen to explore with those concerned with species responses to climate change, approaches that may inform research into future socio-ecological systems.

Our keynote speakers asked critical questions around conservation planning and the increasing novelty in climates and ecosystems.

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  • Room 605, Rolle Building

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Organised by Dr Nicki Whitehouse (School of Geographical, Earth and Environmental Sciences), Dr Louise Firth and Professor Dave Bilton (School of Biological and Marine Sciences), this event showcased ecological research at the University across aquatic (freshwater, marine) and terrestrial systems. 

Our aim was to improve our understanding of species responses and their associated natural and managed communities and ecosystems to environmental and human-induced change, linking both long and short-term processes and drawing on neo and palaeo-ecological approaches. 

Anthropogenic processes are now leading to major changes in our environment, and understanding how species, communities and ecosystems respond to environmental change on macro-evolutionary scales is instrumental in understanding the processes that govern modern global biodiversity. Despite this, a long-term perspective is often lacking from contemporary thinking on global climate change. We know that ecosystems are dynamic, and change is normal, in response to both internal processes and changes in the external environment. The rates of processes and varied lifespans mean that ecological dynamics play out over a range of spatial and temporal scales, including those well beyond an organismal lifetime. Ecologists are developing increasing awareness that the time scales needed to understand the true effects of ecological and environmental change extend over decades, centuries and millennia, driven in part by the ‘planet-wide experiment’ of current climate change and the accumulation of long-term monitoring data over the last few decades. 

Even though the Earth is entering a period of unprecedented climate change, this is not the first time ecosystems have faced disruptions that have had global impacts, such as the cycles of glacials and interglacials through the Pleistocene, the extinction of the megafauna at the end of last ice age and the transition to early agriculture during the Holocene being some of the best examples. To understand how disruptive processes affect biodiversity and ecological communities needs efforts focused on deciphering the impact of ecological change on both global and geological scales, from the terrestrial, aquatic and marine realm. Moreover, understanding how long and short-term changes are driven by geomorphological and biotic processes and major climatic fluctuations is important for determining the evolutionary pressures acting within species, populations and communities. 

While the focus of the meeting was ecological, we were also interested in exploring how long- and short-term ecological approaches may inform research into socio-ecological systems and ecosystem services and used the meeting to interact with external stakeholders concerned with species responses to climate change.

This event was also affiliated with a proposed new Palaeoecology Special Interest Group (SIG) of the British Ecological Society. The proposed new SIG is intended to improve communication between neo- and paleo-ecologists and other SIGs (for example, macro-ecologists). Details of the proposed SIG were available at the meeting.

Keynote speakers

Two keynote speakers set the research context: Professor Iain Colin Prentice (with Sandy P Harrison and Maria Dance), from Imperial College London, on 'The velocity of past climate changes and plant responses' and Dr Alejandro Ordonez, from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Aarhus, Denmark, on 'The rising novelty in ecosystems and climates: looking to the past to understand a no-analogue future'. Further details of our keynotes may be found below.

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Professor Iain Colin Prentice holds the AXA Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London. 

He is also an Honorary Professor in Ecology and Evolution at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia and a visiting expert at North West Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling, China. 

His research has ranged widely over ecological data analysis, Quaternary palaeoecology, plant functional ecology, biogeochemistry, vegetation dynamics, climate change impacts and carbon cycle science. He has been at the forefront of developments in global ecosystem modelling since the late 1980s, from static biogeography (BIOME) to coupled biogeochemistry and vegetation dynamics (LPJ) models. His current research focuses on the development of a next-generation land ecosystem model based on eco-evolutionary and biophysical principles. A Highly Cited Author since 2002, he was included in Thomson Reuters’ 2014 list of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds”.

Professor Iain Colin Prentice, Imperial College London

Dr Alejandro (Alejo) Ordonez is a plant macro-ecologist and global change biologist working at the intersection between paleoecology and macroecology. The aim of his research is understanding and predicting future ecosystem behaviour in the face of earth’s changing ecological, biogeochemical, climatic and disturbance gradients. His research has used a broad geographical and temporal perspective centred and extensive comparative studies that quantify and provide scenarios that explain how past environmental changes have shaped modern plant diversity patterns and the implications of such changes for conservation.

He obtained his MSc And PhD from the University of Groningen and undertook post-doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Aarhus University (Denmark). Currently, he is the Global Change Lecturer at Queens University, Belfast, and an associate researcher at the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE) at Aarhus University.

Dr Alejandro Ordonez, Queens University-Belfast and Aarhus University, Denmark

Abstract - The velocity of past climate changes and plant responses

  • Professor Iain Colin Prentice (Imperial College)
  • Sandy P Harrison (University of Reading)
  • Maria Dance (Imperial College/Oxford University)

Is the rate of projected climate change in this century within the limits of species’ past experience, or is it many times faster? 

This is a central question for conservation planning in a rapidly changing environment. It has not been satisfactorily answered, and it was treated in a contentious way in the most recent IPCC report. Recent studies focusing on the ‘velocity’ of climate change, i.e. the speed at which a given climate moves across the landscape, have generally concluded that the projected velocities of near-future climate changes are far beyond species’ migration capabilities. These studies have not attempted to quantify ecological changes that have actually taken place in response to the large and rapid warming events associated with Dansgaard-Oeschger events (now documented almost worldwide during the last ice age) and the last glacial termination. Some of the best evidence for rapid warming comes from records of taxa, such as high-resolution pollen records from lake sediments, that seem to imply a fast and reversible response of the biota. It therefore seems possible that species are much more resilient to rapid climate change than is allowed for by the dominant narrative. This is worrying, because it means conservation policies are being made without taking account of extremely relevant palaeoecological evidence. 

Our analysis is based on the principle that reconstructions of past climates from pollen data can provide estimates of the rates and velocities of vegetation responses to rapid, natural climate change. Based on a published high-resolution record from the Massif Central, France, we show that reconstructed coldest-month temperatures – a major limiting factor for the distribution of many species of plants and animals – varied over Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles by up to 9˚C. This rate of climate change translates into a geometric-mean velocity of vegetation response of 1.8 km/year across the surrounding region. Such a high velocity is contrary to conventional wisdom concerning the (in)ability of plant species to respond rapidly to changes in climate. 

Our conclusion does not call for complacency regarding the challenges for conservation posed by climate change, especially for groups (such as large mammals) that are likely to be more vulnerable. We suggest, however, that habitat fragmentation of the landscape may pose greater challenges to species conservation in general than the high velocity of climate change itself.

Abstract - Rising novelty in ecosystems and climates: looking to the past to understand a no-analogue future

  • Dr Alejandro Ordonez

We live in a world of rising novelty, were many contemporary ecosystems already differ substantively from all historical counterparts. 

Already, many communities have been transformed by human action (land use, species introductions, altered nutrient cycles, etc.) and the legacies of past actions, and now comprise mixtures of species with no historical or evolutionary counterpart. These changes are expected to result in future ecosystems differing from those found today (i.e., novel ecosystems). The emergence of novel ecosystems, and climates pose both opportunities and challenges for ecologists. Novel ecosystems provide new systems for testing ecological theories, and may provide needed services. However, the expected emergence of future novel climates and ecosystems seriously challenges ecological forecasting and increases the likelihood of ecological surprises.

In our efforts to predict, understand, and prepare for the behaviour of ecosystems in a strange new world, geological and historical data are essential sources of information about processes governing species and ecosystems for timescales and states of the earth system that are inaccessible to direct observation. In particular, the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary, with their general reshuffling of species into communities with no modern analogue, offer unique research opportunities for studying the abiotic and biotic processes governing the assembly and disassembly of communities. 

In this talk Alejandro addressed several critical questions regarding the rise of novelty in climates and ecosystems: 

  • How do we define novelty and by what criteria? 
  • How novel are current and projected climates, communities, and disturbance regimes relative to paleohistorical counterparts? 
  • By what mechanisms do novel climates give rise to novel ecosystems, and what metrics best represent the exposure of communities to climate-driven reorganisation? 
  • When and where have novel ecosystems arisen in the past, and under what environmental conditions? 
  • How accurate are ecological forecasting models under novel climates, and where are the limits to predictability?

Image credit: Louise Firth
Image credit: Louise Firth

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