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.

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).

4.2.2 Other ecosystem change drivers

Ecosystems are sensitive not only to changes in climate and atmospheric trace gas concentrations but also to other anthropogenic changes such as land use, nitrogen deposition, pollution and invasive species (Vitousek et al., 1997; Mack et al., 2000; Sala et al., 2000; Hansen et al., 2001; Lelieveld et al., 2002; Körner, 2003b; Lambin et al., 2003; Reid et al., 2005). In the recent past, these pressures have significantly increased due to human activity (Gitay et al., 2001). Natural disturbance regimes (e.g., wildfire and insect outbreaks) are also important climate-sensitive drivers of ecosystem change. Projecting the impacts of the synergistic effects of these drivers presents a major challenge, due to the potential for non-linear, rapid, threshold-type responses in ecological systems (Burkett et al.,

Land-use change represents the anthropogenic replacement of one land use type by another, e.g., forest to cultivated land (or the reverse), as well as subtle changes of management practices within a given land use type, e.g., intensification of agricultural practices, both of which are affecting 40% of the terrestrial surface (reviewed by Foley et al., 2005). Land-use change and related habitat loss and fragmentation have long

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