How sensitive are global ecosystems to climatic variability?

18 February 2016

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Researchers from the Biodiversity Institute at University of Oxford (part of the Oxford Martin School), the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the University of Bergen, have published a new study in Nature taking the first step towards addressing why some regions are more sensitive than others to the impact of changes in climate.

Projected changes in climate in the 21st century are likely to have profound impacts on ecosystems and it is essential to identify those regions that are most sensitive to the changes. In this study, the authors use a novel approach to characterise ecosystem responses to climate variability across global terrestrial systems. The new metric designed by the team is called the Vegetation Sensitivity Index (VSI) and measures the sensitivity of vegetation to air temperature, water availability and cloud cover.

Using the new metric, the researchers identified seven regions that show increased sensitivity to variability in climate: the arctic tundra; parts of the boreal forest (a vast ring of forest just below the arctic circle); tropical rainforest; alpine regions; steppe and prairie regions of central Asia and the Americas; the Caatinga deciduous forest in eastern South America; and eastern areas of Australia.

Marc Macias-Fauria, NERC IRF and Associate Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, said: 'Satellite data have revolutionised research in ecology because they can provide a global picture on both climate and ecosystem conditions, even in remote areas. It's up to the ecologists to think creatively about how to use these datasets in new and unique ways.'

Co-author Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford, said: 'In The UK's natural capital report launched in October 2015, one of the key messages was the urgent need to determine a methodology to identify the most vulnerable natural capital stocks globally. This work provides the first step in identifying why some regions seem to be more sensitive than others and therefore to assessing the impacts on the resilience of ecosystems and human wellbeing in the face of increased climate variability.'

The study 'Sensitivity of global terrestrial ecosystems to climate variability' is published in the journal Nature.