Tag Archives: climate

Extreme Climate Events: Is There A Silver Lining?

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

The silver lining of extreme events (2018) Coleman & Wernberg, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2020.08.013

The Crux

We here at Ecology for the Masses recognize the harm of climate change and the danger that it poses to countless species the world over. Part of climate change involves extreme climate events such as floods, droughts, unusual cold spells, or cyclones, all of which can be devastating to natural systems. By and large these events are seen as negative, and rightfully so! But today’s paper offers another perspective on extreme climate events: their potential for driving evolution towards increased resilience.

Now, I’m not saying that these extreme climate events are good. I dislike them just as much as the next person with a shred of concern about the natural world. That being said, the authors raise some interesting points about the evidence that exists for these events being a positive force for evolution and adaptation. As such, I want to touch on a few of those points, address some issues with this ‘silver lining’, and talk about what it means going forward.

What Evidence Exists

Extreme climate events result in massive losses of organic life, local extinctions, and can drive range shifts. This is quite costly from not only an ecological point of view, but also a social and and an economic one. Due to these costs, a significant amount of effort and money has been dedicated to working on issues associated with these events. Interestingly enough, despite the negative connotations and costs associated with extreme climate events, there is emerging empirical evidence for a “benefit” in that they can cause non-random mortality (see Did You Know?), driving rapid evolution and adaptation.

Scientific theory has predicted that when extreme climate events occur in such a way that they select against weak individuals, but aren’t so extreme that “tougher” individuals cannot live, then these more tolerant and stronger individuals can persist in populations/areas undergoing extreme events. If these tougher individuals can pass on their genes, then a population can rapidly adapt to these extreme conditions. For example, a study showed that a severe cold snap selected for cold tolerance in green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and similar work has shown that heatwaves selected for thermal tolerance in kelp. While plenty of the lizards/kelp didn’t have the proper traits to survive these extreme temperatures, some of them did. And because they passed on those genes to the next generation, the population is better-suited to survive future extreme temperatures.

Did You Know: Non-Random Mortality

Evolution is a fact of life, and the driving force behind the persistence of life on our planet. However, what you may not know is how evolution actually results in changes in a population/species over time. Individual organisms don’t evolve, species do. So how does that work? Well, it all has to do with how often certain individuals pass on their genes. “Survival of the fittest” refers to the biological concept of “fitness”, which is how good a given organism is at passing on its genes. So in order to be the most fit, you have to pass on the most genetic material, relative to other members of the population. This is where non-random mortality comes into play. Non-random mortality means that there is a pattern behind the death rates. Put into other words, the individuals that survived had something that the ones that died did not. This is how evolution works slowly over time, non-random mortality means that individuals with a given trait tend to die less often than those that don’t have that trait, which means that that trait gets passed on more often than others. Eventually, that trait will become the new normal for that population/species, and evolution has occurred.

What This Means

The potential for extreme events to select for resilience and drive rapid adaptation means that groups dedicated to conservation and preservation of species and ecosystems may be able to proactively anticipate future events. The authors highlight the difficulty inherent in studying non-model organisms for traits/genes that may promote persistence to future climate events, as it involves a LOT of background research to understand the mechanisms behind such persistence. However, to use the anoles from earlier as an example, there are better ways. If one was to go to an area that recently suffered a cold snap like those anoles did and collect the survivors, chances are that most of those survivors have the cold-tolerance trait. By selectively breeding/relocating those survivors conservation workers could prevent future die-offs due to cold snaps.

Problems With These Approaches

This all sounds great, right? No issue? Well, not quite. Just because a given trait may promote persistence to one stressor (the environment) does not mean that it promotes persistence to all others (like disease). Another issue with this silver-lining of adaptation and rapid evolution is the bottleneck effect: extreme events cause mass die-offs. Though the survivors may have a trait that allows them to persist in extreme events, the reduced population size of the survivors may result in such a marked decrease in genetic diversity that the population fails eventually anyway due to the issues associated with inbreeding.

The cheetah is an example of an organism that underwent a population bottleneck, and as such now suffers from very low levels of genetic diversity (Image credit: Ken Blum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So What?

Extreme climate events are an unfortunate reality, and they are only predicted to get worse and become more frequent. Today’s paper offers a pleasant silver lining to that very grim reality, as it highlights the potential for these events to drive evolution and selection to extreme conditions. It may not be as good as not having these events in the first place, but the authors bring up an important point by drawing attention to the evidence that exists for populations adapting to these extreme conditions, many of which seem to be driven by human-induced climate change. I’ve recently re-read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and I can’t help but think of a quote from the character Dr. Ian Malcolm’s as I was reading this paper: “The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us”.

Adam Hasik is an evolutionary ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. You can read more about his research and his work for Ecology for the Masses here, see his personal website here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Adaptation of Forests to Climate Change: Is It Possible?

Urbión Model Forest in Castilla y León, Spain (Image Credit: Julia Ramsauer)

In a world in which it’s still tough to convince many people that climate change is a very real phenomena, figuring out ways to tackle climate change is an even more difficult problem to wrap our heads around. In general, there are two strategies we can use: (1) mitigation (reducing the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) and, (2) adaptation (reducing the vulnerability of societies and ecosystems facing the impacts of climate change).

In my last piece (linked here), I wrote about the effects of climate change on forests. But what about the reverse, and their potential to mitigate climate change? Forests are crucial for climate change mitigation – they literally suck carbon out of the atmosphere. At the same time, forest adaptation will be necessary to avoid degradation of forest ecosystems due to a changing climate: an extremely complex task.

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The Impact of Climate Change on European Forests

Province of Lleida, Catalonia, Spain (Image Credit: Julia Ramsauer, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

As carbon emissions rise globally, finding ways to reduce emissions and store carbon are coming to the forefront of modern science. Forests are huge carbon stores thanks to the copious amount of photosynthesis they conduct. As climate change increases temperatures, trees become a very important tool in the fight against rising emissions. One study even described forest restoration overwhelmingly more powerful than all other proposed climate change solutions. You might think: “So let’s go and plant trees!” Unfortunately, it’s not so easy.

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Fighting Climate Change While Maintaining Biodiversity: Can It Be Done?

Mapping co-benefits for carbon storage and biodiversity to inform conservation policy and action (2019) Soto-Navarro et al., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0128

The Crux

With the world under so many anthropogenic pressures simultaneously, trying to come up with management solutions for different issues can be a problem. Climate change and biodiversity are a great example. Storing carbon is a great way to reduce the effects of climate change, and increasing the range of forests worldwide is a great way to increase carbon storage. Yet the sort of forests that store carbon most efficiently are often poor at promoting biodiversity. They are largely made up of very similar trees, while forests that include brush, scrubs, and other layers often store less carbon, but house more biodiverse communities.

As such, finding areas that are prime specimens for a) storing carbon and b) biodiversity conservation are incredibly important, so that managers at every level (from park rangers right up to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) can know where interests overlap, and adjust plans accordingly.

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Turning Students Into Scientists with Professor Vigdis Vandvik

Ask any two researchers what separates a student from a scientist and you’ll likely get two completely different answers. Often I hear people writing their PhD thesis being referred to (and even referring to themselves) as scientists-to-be, which is surely ridiculous, considering the amount of time they spend creating data and publishing research (NO I’M NOT BITTER). But even below that level, I know plenty of Master’s students who have put together singularly impressive datasets or papers that must qualify them for the seemingly subjective title of scientist.

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Biotic Interactions: Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

Image Credit: Danyell Odhiambo/ICRAF, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Local Adaptation to Biotic Interactions: A Meta-analysis across Latitudes (2020) Hargreaves et al., The American Naturalist, https://doi.org/10.1086/707323

The Crux

Local adaptation is a process whereby individuals native to a given area are better-suited to live in that environment than foreign individuals, and those local individuals will out-compete foreign individuals. This adaptation to local conditions can range from a predator that is better at finding and catching prey, to a plant that is more efficient than another at taking nutrients from the soil, or to a host that has evolved defenses against a local parasite. Despite a wealth of literature and science that has been dedicated to the study of local adaptation, it is not clear what it is about the environment that commonly drives it.

Early studies of local adaptation measured abiotic (non-living) factors like temperature and the amount of light, but this ignores the fact that all environments include biotic factors like other species and any interactions with them. A small amount of studies have shown that biotic interactions (i.e. interactions with other species) can drive local adaptation, but there isn’t a consensus on how common of a pattern that is. Today’s authors used a meta-analysis of previous studies to test how these biotic interactions affect local adaptation. Read more

The 2020 Oikos Write-Up: Ecology in the Anthropocene

My lord Iceland is gorgeous. There could not have been a better setting for the 2020 Nordic Oikos Society’s Annual Meeting. Driving through deserts of snow that ring of the kind of quiet isolation you’d expect from a town in a depressing British murder mystery was a wonderful experience.

As was the conference itself, of course. So let’s recap some of my highlights from this year’s meeting, titled ‘Ecology in the Anthropocene’.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Five

Image Credit: rumpleteaser, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

2019 was a year in which many changes that our planet is experiencing came to the fore, capped off in December by the Australian bushfires, a phenomenon that scientists predicted would start to occur with increasing intensity at the beginning of last decade. With all the change that our planet is currently undergoing, it’s always worth noting that the discipline of ecology itself has changed as well.

Over 2019 we got to sit down and talk to some pretty exciting people. And whether they were at the forefront of genomics, the science-policy interface, or the wave of inclusivity currently sweeping ecology, they all had some great comments on how ecology has changed over the last few decades.

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The Challenges Facing Community Ecology

Community ecology, as a relatively new discipline, is fraught with challenges. Here, we look at why an hour spent talking about those challenges may make you feel like the PhD student pictured above (Image Credit: Lau Svensson, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Anyone who has forayed any small distance into academia will probably understand the following quote by Aristotle.

“The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

According to Stewart Lee, participating in further education means embarking on a “quest to enlarge the global storehouse of all human understanding”. This might be true, yet venturing into academia also means that the more answers you learn to challenging scientific questions, the more questions get opened up. It’s the circle of academic life.

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5 Stages of Grief and the Australian Wildfires

Image Credit: Bert Knottenbeld, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

In case you’ve been living under a rock (in which case, stay there, there’s probably less smoke), you’ll know by now that Australia has experienced wildfires over the last couple of months that dwarf what California and the Amazon went through last year.

The Australian bush fires have been widely covered in the media, but let’s do a quick summary of the stats^. Earlier this week, approximately 73,000 square kilometres – around the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined – have been burnt and over a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have likely been killed. Tragically, 24 people have died as of Monday, three of whom were volunteer firefighters.

So how has the nation – and the world – reacted? The spectrum has been vast, making analysing the reaction no easy task. So today I wanted to have a look at Australia’s (and in a sense the world’s) ongoing reaction to the Australian bushfires as per the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.

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