Climate News Network

Climate disrupts UK wildlife calendar

July 7, 2016, by Tim Radford

Hungry blackbird chicks rely on there being plentiful insects for their parents to catch.
Image: Dennis@Stromness via Flickr

The largest ever study of the how climate sensitivity manifests itself in the seasonal behaviour of UK plants and animals warns that some species may struggle to survive.

LONDON, 7 July, 2016 – In a warming world, in which spring arrives ever earlier and rainfall patterns shift, some species may not be able to cope with change.

A major scientific survey warns that plants may flower before insects are ready to pollinate them, and the birds that time their nest cycles to the season for insects might find their prey in short supply.

Scientists in the UK have just published the largest ever study of ecosystems and the changes in the seasons. They report in Nature journal that a consortium of researchers from 18 organisations combed the literature to identify more than 10,000 data sets, containing 370,000 observations of seasonal events in the natural world.

Their search spanned the years 1960 to 2012, and involved 812 plant and animal species from the seashore, the rivers and lakes, and dry land.

Different responses

The study embraced three vital levels of the food chain: the primary-producer plants and algae that turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into food; the primary-consumer birds and insects that eat the plants and their seeds; and the secondary-consumer birds, fish and mammals that dine on the insects.

They also looked at national temperature change and rainfall data over the period. And their conclusion is that plants and animals differ in their response to climate change, and that creatures at different levels of the food chain differ yet again.

And they forecast that, overall, the primary consumers will have shifted their seasonal timing more than twice as much as the primary producers and the secondary consumers. By 2050, the primary consumers will be at work an average of 6.2 days earlier, whereas the other two groups will have moved forward more than 2.5 days, but less than three.

“This is the largest study of the climatic sensitivity of UK plant and animal seasonal behaviour to date,” says the lead author, Stephen Thackeray, a lake ecologist from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

“We are lucky in the UK to have a long history
of people fascinated with observing
and recording events in nature”

“Our results show the potential for climate change to disrupt the relationships between plants and animals, and now it is crucially important that we try to understand the consequences of these changes.”

In nature, timing is everything, and the study rests on a low-key, quietly-observed science called phenology − the record of when things happen in the natural world.

Foresters, gardeners, growers and ornithologists have been recording the dates of such things as first bud, first leaf, first nesting behaviour, first butterfly emergence since the 19th century, largely as a labour of love.

But it became clear two decades ago that such observations had begun to confirm the reality of climate change even more forcefully than slight shifts in the mercury of the thermometer. The evidence was in the form of milder winters, longer growing seasons, and earlier foliage in particular.

Winners and losers

The long-term consequences of global warming remain uncertain. Researchers have recorded slower growth in the giants of the forest, shifts in the distribution of plants, and changes in mountain meadow wildflowers. There is evidence that creatures can adapt, but there must be losers as well.

Right now, nobody can predict who the winners and losers will be. But disturbance to ecosystems must have consequences, and the latest research is just that − an attempt to frame the big picture for further observation. And it rests on a century of naturalist record-keeping.

One of the report’s authors, Deborah Hemming, a climate risk analyst at the UK Met Office, says: “We are lucky in the UK to have a long history of people fascinated with observing and recording events in nature.

“By quantifying the relationships between these phenological records and climate data across the UK, we identify many phenological events that are extremely sensitive to climate variations.

“These provide ideal early indicators, or sentinels, for monitoring and responding to the impacts of climate variability and change on nature.” – Climate News Network

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  • I hate these “Climate News Network” articles which downplay what’s really happening. It’s as if the intent is to not alarm anyone too much. For example, the liberal use of “may” to describe what is painfully obviously true and has been true for decades. “Some species may not be able to cope . . .” Really? Instead, how about “Tens of thousands of species have already gone extinct and the number of extinctions is increasing every year.” And notice how he makes every statement nice-sounding or at least neutral and “reasonable.”

    This article pretties up the real truths of climate change. Give a close read to everything under “Winners and Losers.” It’s language intended to mollify. “Nobody can predict . . ” Really? That is an incredibly false statement. Just think about that for a few seconds. Species are labeled with “threatened” “endangered” etc. What is that if not a prediction? There have been thousands of papers and articles written about predicting the fate of thousands of different species.

    “Long term consequences remain uncertain.” Really? Well, “uncertain” perhaps as in “we don’t know exactly what will happen.” Well here’s something for certain–how about “Long term consequences will most certainly be disastrous for all but a few forms of life on this planet,” a sentiment which has been stated thousands of times by scientists for decades.

    “There will be winners and losers.” Sounds like a nice well-balanced, rational, and sensible attitude for everyone to have so as not to get too upset and out in the streets demanding change. But in reality it’s a terribly cruel and cynical statement, a rationalization because the ratio or winners to losers is more like 1:10,000. Weed species–that’s what we’re being left with.

    Many “Climate News Network” articles appear to be reality-based, but many others raise in me the suspicion they are a clever form of oil company and Koch-backed climate-change denial journalism.

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