Nav: Home

Extreme weather has greater impact on nature than expected -- researchers launch roadmap

May 16, 2017

An oystercatcher nest is washed away in a storm surge. Australian passerine birds die during a heatwave. A late frost in their breeding area kills off a group of American cliff swallows. Small tragedies that may seem unrelated, but point to the underlying long-term impact of extreme climatic events. In the special June issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B researchers of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) launch a new approach to these 'extreme' studies.

Extremes, outliers, cataclysms. As a field of biological research it's still in its infancy, but interest in the impact of extreme weather and climate events on nature is growing rapidly. That's partly because it is now increasingly clear that the impact of extreme events on animal behaviour, ecology and evolution could well be greater than that of the 'normal' periods in between. And partly because the frequency of such events is likely to increase, due to climate change.

Not 1 to 1

But how do we define extreme events in the first place? That's problematic, explain NIOO researchers Marcel Visser and Martijn van de Pol. "For climatologists, weather has to be warmer, colder or more extreme in another way than it is 95% of the time. But that doesn't necessarily make it extreme in terms of its impact on nature. There isn't a 1 to 1 correspondence."

According to the researchers and a group of international colleagues, most of the evidence suggests that the impact varies depending on the species and the circumstances. "Obviously for a bird, the impact of a couple of extremely cold days in December wouldn't be the same as in April or May, when there are chicks in the nest." This makes it very difficult to predict the consequences of extremes.

"We also don't know enough about the long-term consequences for nature of these crucially important extremes", say Van de Pol and Visser. "But that could be about to change." As guest editors of a themed issue of the world's oldest scientific journal, dedicated to extreme climatic events, they take stock of the available knowledge and the hiatuses that currently exist. They suggest a 'roadmap' for the further development of this new area of research, aimed at making it easier to compare and synthesize information across fields.

An added complication is that storm surges, heatwaves of five days or longer and decades of drought tend to be quite rare. But when they do occur, the consequences are often catastrophic: a challenging combination for researchers. Van de Pol: "Take the Wadden Sea. At the end of the 12th century, there was a storm that utterly transformed the Wadden Sea. The ecological consequences of that storm have continued for decades, if not centuries." "Or take the dinosaurs", adds Visser. "They never recovered from the impact of a single meteorite in Mexico."

Fatal for fairies?

Less cataclysmic events, too, can have major consequences. Two examples from Phil. Trans. B are oystercatchers that build their nests close to the coast despite rising sea levels, and fairy-wrens - Australian passerine birds - that are increasingly exposed to heatwaves and high temperatures, with sometimes fatal consequences.

Just imagine you're an oystercatcher: one moment you sit there peacefully incubating your eggs on the saltmarsh, and the next your nest is gone. Engulfed by the Wadden Sea during a storm surge. Time-lapse footage from researchers on the Wadden island of Schiermonnikoog clearly demonstrates the danger. Van de Pol. "We've studied these nests for two decades, and during that time the number of flooding events has more than doubled. Yet the oystercatchers don't take any action."

The researchers were keen to find out if the birds would learn from experience and build their nests on higher ground - safer but further from their favourite sea food, "but they don't". This could result in natural selection based on nest elevation, with only breeders who build their nest on high ground likely to survive. But this could affect the future viability of the population.

The other example looks at the impact on two species of passerine birds of a decrease in the number of cold spells and an increase in the number of heatwaves. The red-winged fairy-wren and the white-browed scrubwren both have their habitat in southwestern Australia and they are ecologically quite similar. So how do they respond over time? Do they change their body size to mediate the impact of the extreme temperatures? Van de Pol: "Data over nearly 40 years shows that the two species, although quite similar, respond in completely different ways".

Rocket science?

So could rare extreme events be more likely to determine the success or failure of populations than the much longer 'normal' periods in between?

"Let's say you've studied a breeding population of migratory birds for 49 years", explains Marcel Visser, "and year after year, the birds that arrive early in spring have the most chicks. It's hard to understand why more birds don't arrive early. Then, in the 50th year, a night of extremely cold weather suddenly kills 80% of the early arrivals, while the latecomers escape from the massacre. This may explain why the late birds are so successful at passing on their traits."

If that makes it sound as if it's really very hard to make predictions, Visser agrees. "It's not exactly rocket science", he says,"with its complex and elaborate calculations. In fact, it's much more difficult than that!"
With more than 300 staff members and students, NIOO is one of the largest research institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The institute specialises in water and land ecology. As of 2011, the institute is located in an innovative and sustainable research building in Wageningen, the Netherlands. NIOO has an impressive research history that stretches back 60 years and spans the entire country, and beyond.

Themed issue 'Behavioural, ecological and evolutionary responses to extreme climatic events' van Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences), Martijn van de Pol, Stéphanie Jenouvrier & Marcel E. Visser. 19 June 2017. Available online now for subscribers: of the fourteen articles in the themed issue were written by NIOO researchers:

Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)

Related Climate Change Articles:

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.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at