Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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4.3. Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems

Ecosystems are subject to many pressures, such as land-use changes, deposition of nutrients and pollutants, harvesting, grazing by livestock, introduction of exotic species, and natural climate variability. Climate change constitutes an additional pressure that could change or endanger these systems. The impact of climate change on these systems will be influenced by land and water management adaptation and interactions with other pressures. Adaptive capacity is greater for more intensively managed lands and waters and in production of marketed goods (e.g., timber production in plantations) than in less intensively managed lands and nonmarket values of those lands and waters. [5.1, 5.2]

Populations of many species already are threatened and are expected to be placed at greater risk by the synergy between the stresses of changing climate, rendering portions of current habitat unsuitable, and land-use change that fragments habitats. Without adaptation, some species that currently are classified as "critically endangered" will become extinct, and the majority of those labeled "endangered or vulnerable" will become much rarer in the 21st century (high confidence). This may have the greatest impact on the lowest income human societies, which rely on wildlife for subsistence living. In addition, there is high confidence that loss or reduction of species would impact the services provided by wildlife through roles within an ecosystem (e.g., pollination, natural pest control), recreation (e.g., sport hunting, wildlife viewing), and cultural and religious practices of indigenous people. Possible adaptation methods to reduce risks to species could include establishment of refuges, parks, and reserves with corridors to allow migration of species, as well as use of captive breeding and translocation. However, these options may have limitations of cost. [5.4]

There are now substantial observational and experimental studies demonstrating the link between change in regional climate and biological or physical processes in ecosystems. These include a lengthening of vegetative growing season by 1.2 to 3.6 days per decade in the high northern latitudes (one factor leading to community composition changes); warming of lakes and rivers as a result of shortening duration of ice cover; upward range shifts in alpine herbs; and increased mortality and range contraction of wildlife as a result of heat stress. Others include changes in population sizes, body sizes, and migration times (see TS 2.1 and 7.1, Figure TS-11, and Table TS-16 for additional information). [5.2.1]

Vegetation distribution models since the SAR suggest that mass ecosystem or biome movement is most unlikely to occur because of different climatic tolerance of the species involved, different migration abilities, and the effects of invading species. Species composition and dominance will change, resulting in ecosystem types that may be quite different from those we see today. These changes will lag the changes in climate by years to decades to centuries (high confidence). The effects of changes in disturbances such as fire, blowdown, or pest attacks on vegetation have not been included in these studies. [5.2]

Recent modeling studies continue to show potential for significant disruption of ecosystems under climate change (high confidence). Further development of simple correlative models that were available at the time of the SAR point to areas where ecosystem disruption and the potential for ecosystem migration are high. Observational data and newer dynamic vegetation models linked to transient climate models are refining the projections. However, the precise outcomes depend on processes that are too subtle to be fully captured by current models. [5.2]

Increasing CO2 concentration would increase net primary productivity (plant growth, litterfall, and mortality) in most systems, whereas increasing temperature may have positive or negative effects (high confidence). Experiments on tree species grown under elevated CO2 over several years show continued and consistent stimulation of photosynthesis and little evidence of long-term loss of sensitivity to CO2. However, changes in net ecosystem productivity (which includes plant growth, litterfall, mortality, litter decomposition, and soil carbon dynamics) and net biome productivity (which includes those effects plus the effects of fire or other disturbances) are less likely to be positive and may be generally negative. Research reported since the SAR confirms the view that the largest and earliest impacts induced by climate change are likely to occur in boreal forests, through changes in weather-related disturbance regimes and nutrient cycling. [,]

Terrestrial ecosystems appear to be storing increasing amounts of carbon. At the time of the SAR, this was attributed largely to increasing plant productivity because of the interaction among elevated CO2 concentration, increasing temperatures, and soil moisture changes. Recent results confirm that productivity gains are occurring but suggest that they are smaller under field conditions than plant-pot experiments indicate (medium confidence). Hence, the terrestrial uptake may be caused more by change in uses and management of land than by the direct effects of elevated CO2 and climate. The degree to which terrestrial ecosystems continue to be net sinks for carbon is uncertain because of the complex interactions between the aforementioned factors (e.g., arctic terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands may act as sources and sinks) (medium confidence).

In arid or semi-arid areas (e.g., rangelands, dry forests/ woodlands) where climate change is likely to decrease available soil moisture, productivity is expected to decrease. Increased CO2 concentrations may counteract some of these losses. However, many of these areas are affected by El Niño/La Niña, other climatic extremes, and disturbances such as fire. Changes in the frequencies of these events and disturbances could lead to loss of productivity thus potential land degradation, potential loss of stored carbon, or decrease in the rate of carbon uptake (medium confidence). [5.5]

Some wetlands will be replaced by forests or heathlands, and those overlying permafrost are likely to be disrupted as a result of thawing of permafrost (high confidence). The initial net effect of warming on carbon stores in high-latitude ecosystems is likely to be negative because decomposition initially may respond more rapidly than production. In these systems, changes in albedo and energy absorption during winter are likely to act as a positive feedback to regional warming as a result of earlier melting of snow and, over decades to centuries, poleward movement of the treeline. [5.8, 5.9]

Most wetland processes are dependent on catchment-level hydrology; thus, adaptations for projected climate change may be practically impossible. Arctic and subarctic ombrotrophic bog communities on permafrost, as well as more southern depressional wetlands with small catchment areas, are likely to be most vulnerable to climate change. The increasing speed of peatland conversion and drainage in southeast Asia is likely to place these areas at a greatly increased risk of fires and affect the viability of tropical wetlands. [5.8]

Opportunities for adapting to expected changes in high-latitude and alpine ecosystems are limited because these systems will respond most strongly to globally induced changes in climate. Careful management of wildlife resources could minimize climatic impacts on indigenous peoples. Many high-latitude regions depend strongly on one or a few resources, such as timber, oil, reindeer, or wages from fighting fires. Economic diversification would reduce the impacts of large changes in the availability or economic value of particular goods and services. High levels of endemism in many alpine floras and their inability to migrate upward means that these species are very vulnerable. [5.9]

Contrary to the SAR, global timber market studies that include adaptations through land and product management suggest that climate change would increase global timber supply (medium confidence). At the regional and global scales, the extent and nature of adaptation will depend primarily on wood and non-wood product prices, the relative value of substitutes, the cost of management, and technology. On specific sites, changes in forest growth and productivity will constrain—and could limit—choices regarding adaptation strategies (high confidence). In markets, prices will mediate adaptation through land and product management. Adaptation in managed forests will include salvaging dead and dying timber, replanting new species that are better suited to the new climate, planting genetically modified species, and intensifying or decreasing management. Consumers will benefit from lower timber prices; producers may gain or lose, depending on regional changes in timber productivity and potential dieback effects. [5.6]

Climate change will lead to poleward movement of the southern and northern boundaries of fish distributions, loss of habitat for cold- and coolwater fish, and gain in habitat for warmwater fish (high confidence). As a class of ecosystems, inland waters are vulnerable to climatic change and other pressures owing to their small size and position downstream from many human activities (high confidence). The most vulnerable elements include reduction and loss of lake and river ice (very high confidence), loss of habitat for coldwater fish (very high confidence), increases in extinctions and invasions of exotics (high confidence), and potential exacerbation of existing pollution problems such as eutrophication, toxics, acid rain, and UV-B radiation (medium confidence). [5.7]

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