IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

4.2 Current sensitivities

4.2.1 Climatic variability and extremes

The biosphere has been exposed to large variability and extremes of CO2 and climate throughout geological history (Augustin et al., 2004; Siegenthaler et al., 2005; Jansen et al., 2007), and this provides some insight into the current sensitivities of ecosystems even though it is not possible to match past climate analogues precisely with future warming, due to differences in forcing factors (Overpeck et al., 2006), dominant ecosystems, and species (e.g., Velichko et al., 2002). What can be learned is that, firstly, significant biological changes including species extinctions have accompanied large climate perturbations of the past (e.g., Overpeck et al., 2005). Secondly, endemic biodiversity is concentrated in regions that have experienced lower variability during the Pleistocene (from about 2 million years ago) (Jansson, 2003), during which glacial and inter-glacial conditions have alternated for roughly the past 2 million years. Thirdly, range shifts have been a major species response (Lovejoy and Hannah, 2005), although genetic and physiological responses (Davis and Shaw, 2001) have also occurred, which can be broadly defined as ‘natural adaptation’ at species level, and by aggregation, at the ecosystem level.

While earlier IPCC reports described several ecosystems to be resilient to warming up to 1°C (e.g., Kirschbaum and Fischlin, 1996), recent studies provide a more differentiated view of ecosystem sensitivity (e.g., Walther et al., 2002) that includes understanding of the role of climatic variability and extremes. Knowledge about climate variability and natural ecosystems has improved with better understanding of the behaviour of decadal-scale climatic oscillations and their impacts, including ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) and the NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation) (Trenberth et al., 2007, Section 3.6). These low-frequency phenomena indirectly determine vegetation responses, notably through shifts in major controls (temperature, precipitation, snow cover). For example, the European Alps show changes in regional climates that can partly be attributed to NAO variability (Hurrell and van Loon, 1997; Serreze et al., 1997; Wanner et al., 1997; Beniston and Jungo, 2002) such as the lack of snow in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Beniston, 2003). Disruptions of precipitation regimes in the Pacific region and beyond during ENSO events can disrupt vegetation through drought, heat stress, spread of parasites and disease, and more frequent fire (e.g., Diaz and Markgraf, 1992). Similar effects have been reported for NAO (Edwards and Richardson, 2004; Sims et al., 2004; Balzter et al., 2005). Sea surface temperature increases associated with ENSO events have been implicated in reproductive failure in seabirds (Wingfield et al., 1999), reduced survival and reduced size in iguanas (Wikelski and Thom, 2000) and major shifts in island food webs (Stapp et al., 1999).

Many significant impacts of climate change may emerge through shifts in the intensity and the frequency of extreme weather events. Extreme events can cause mass mortality of individuals and contribute significantly to determining which species occur in ecosystems (Parmesan et al., 2000). Drought plays an important role in forest dynamics, driving pulses of tree mortality in the Argentinean Andes (Villalba and Veblen, 1997), North American woodlands (Breshears and Allen, 2002; Breshears et al., 2005), and in the eastern Mediterranean (Körner et al., 2005b). In both the Canadian Rockies (Luckman, 1994) and European Alps (Bugmann and Pfister, 2000) extreme cold through a period of cold summers from 1696 to 1701 caused extensive tree mortality. Heatwaves such as the recent 2003 event in Europe (Beniston, 2004; Schär et al., 2004; Box 4.1) have both short-term and long-term implications for vegetation, particularly if accompanied by drought conditions.

Box 4.1. Ecological impacts of the European heatwave 2003

Anomalous hot and dry conditions affected Europe between June and mid-August, 2003 (Fink et al., 2004; Luterbacher et al., 2004; Schär et al., 2004). Since similarly warm summers may occur at least every second year by 2080 in a Special Report on Emissions Scenario (SRES; Naki´cenovi´c et al, 2000) A2 world, for example (Beniston, 2004; Schär et al., 2004), effects on ecosystems observed in 2003 provide a conservative analogue of future impacts. The major effects of the 2003 heatwave on vegetation and ecosystems appear to have been through heat and drought stress, and wildfires.

Drought stress impacts on vegetation (Gobron et al., 2005; Lobo and Maisongrande, 2006) reduced gross primary production (GPP) in Europe by 30% and respiration to a lesser degree, overall resulting in a net carbon source of 0.5 PgC/yr (Ciais et al., 2005). However, vegetation responses to the heat varied along environmental gradients such as altitude, e.g., by prolonging the growing season at high elevations (Jolly et al., 2005). Some vegetation types, as monitored by remote sensing, were found to recover to a normal state by 2004 (e.g., Gobron et al., 2005), but enhanced crown damage of dominant forest trees in 2004, for example, indicates complex delayed impacts (Fischer, 2005). Freshwater ecosystems experienced prolonged depletion of oxygen in deeper layers of lakes during the heatwave (Jankowski et al., 2006), and there was a significant decline and subsequent poor recovery in species richness of molluscs in the River Saône (Mouthon and Daufresne, 2006). Taken together, this suggests quite variable resilience across ecosystems of different types, with very likely progressive impairment of ecosystem composition and function if such events increase in frequency (e.g., Lloret et al., 2004; Rebetez and Dobbertin, 2004; Jolly et al., 2005; Fuhrer et al., 2006).

High temperatures and greater dry spell durations increase vegetation flammability (e.g., Burgan et al., 1997), and during the 2003 heatwave a record-breaking incidence of spatially extensive wildfires was observed in European countries (Barbosa et al., 2003), with roughly 650,000 ha of forest burned across the continent (De Bono et al., 2004). Fire extent (area burned), although not fire incidence, was exceptional in Europe in 2003, as found for the extraordinary 2000 fire season in the USA (Brown and Hall, 2001), and noted as an increasing trend in the USA since the 1980s (Westerling et al., 2006). In Portugal, area burned was more than twice the previous extreme (1998) and four times the 1980-2004 average (Trigo et al., 2005, 2006). Over 5% of the total forest area of Portugal burned, with an economic impact exceeding ¤1 billion (De Bono et al., 2004).

Long-term impacts of more frequent similar events are very likely to cause changes in biome type, particularly by promoting highly flammable, shrubby vegetation that burns more frequently than less flammable vegetation types such as forests (Nunes et al., 2005), and as seen in the tendency of burned woodlands to reburn at shorter intervals (Vazquez and Moreno, 2001; Salvador et al., 2005). The conversion of vegetation structure in this way on a large enough scale may even cause accelerated climate change through losses of carbon from biospheric stocks (Cox et al., 2000). Future projections for Europe suggest significant reductions in species richness even under mean climate change conditions (Thuiller et al., 2005b), and an increased frequency of such extremes (as indicated e.g., by Schär et al., 2004) is likely to exacerbate overall biodiversity losses (Thuiller et al., 2005b).

Hurricanes can cause widespread mortality of wild organisms, and their aftermath may cause declines due to the loss of resources required for foraging and breeding (Wiley and Wunderle, 1994). The December 1999 ‘storm-of-the-century’ that affected western and central Europe destroyed trees at a rate of up to ten times the background rate (Anonymous, 2001). Loss of habitat due to hurricanes can also lead to greater conflict with humans. For example, fruit bats (Pteropus spp.) declined recently on American Samoa due to a combination of direct mortality events and increased hunting pressure (Craig et al., 1994). Greater storminess and higher return of extreme events will also alter disturbance regimes in coastal ecosystems, leading to changes in diversity and hence ecosystem functioning. Saltmarshes, mangroves and coral reefs are likely to be particularly vulnerable (e.g. Bertness and Ewanchuk, 2002; Hughes et al., 2003).

Assessment of the impacts of climate variability, their trends, and the development of early warning systems has been strongly advanced since the TAR by satellite-based remote sensing efforts. Notable contributions have included insights into phenological shifts in response to warming (e.g., Badeck et al., 2004) and other environmental trends (e.g., Nemani et al., 2003), complex Sahelian vegetation changes (e.g., Prince et al., 1998; Rasmussen et al., 2001; Anyamba and Tucker, 2005; Hein and Ridder, 2006), wildfire impacts (e.g., Isaev et al., 2002; Barbosa et al., 2003; Hicke et al., 2003; Kasischke et al., 2003), coral bleaching events (e.g., Yamano and Tamura, 2004), cryosphere changes (Walsh, 1995; Lemke et al., 2007), ecotone (see Glossary) responses to climate (e.g., Masek, 2001), deforestation (e.g., Asner et al., 2005), and even feedbacks to regional climate (e.g., Durieux et al., 2003), the impacts of extreme climate events (e.g., Gobron et al., 2005; Lobo and Maisongrande, 2006) and monitoring of soil water (Wagner et al., 2003).