Using the past to predict the future: climate change impacts on the sagebrush sea

April 06, 2018

LOGAN, UTAH, USA- Scientists from Utah State University developed a new way to use long-term population data to model how species could respond to climate change in the future.

Using thousands of observations of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) growth from Arizona to Washington, Andy Kleinhesselink and Peter Adler showed that sagebrush populations at cold sites increased after warmer than average years, whereas populations at hot sites decreased after warmer than average years. In a rapidly warming climate, this pattern suggests that sagebrush populations may decline in the future at the hot edge of this species range, whereas populations may increase in colder areas. These changes may have important effects on wildlife such as the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) which depends on sagebrush for habitat and food.

The novelty and strength of this new research is in combining measurements made over many decades from many hundreds of locations. The study includes 8175 observations of year-to-year change in sagebrush abundance from 131 monitoring sites across western North America (see map). The growth of sagebrush at each site was compared with temperature and precipitation records to determine how year-to-year variation in weather affected sagebrush growth.

The key insight of the study is that the effect of weather on sagebrush growth changes across the species' geographic range. Warm years help sagebrush at cold, high elevation sites, but hurt sagebrush at hot, low elevation sites. This pattern is consistent with results from previous studies based only on patterns of sagebrush occurrences. However, because the current study combines long-term data with occurrence records, it forges a more direct link between climate and species distribution and abundance.

One of the key benefits of taking this approach for sagebrush, and for other species, is that it allows for ecologists to produce short-term quantitative forecasts for how species populations will respond to annual climate variation. Because these forecasts can be made for the effects of short-term climate variation (1-10 years) they in theory can be tested relatively quickly. This will lead to a cycle of model testing and refinement that ultimately could improve our long-term forecasts, and build confidence in the predictions ecologists are making.

While species distribution models for sagebrush have predicted that global warming could lead to more sagebrush in cold regions and less in hot regions, the new work uses an entirely new modeling approach and an independent set of data. However, the study also showed that sagebrush may be less responsive to precipitation than expected: sagebrush in dry locations did not grow more after wet years than sagebrush in wet locations. Overall, the results suggest that long-term changes in temperature may be more important for the future of sagebrush than changes in precipitation.

S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to