WG II Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability - Technical Summary

Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptationand Vulnerability

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2. Methods and Tools of the Assessment

Assessment of climate change impacts, adaptations, and vulnerability draws on a wide range of physical, biological, and social science disciplines and consequently employs an enormous variety of methods and tools. Since the SAR, such methods have improved detection of climate change in biotic and physical systems and produced new substantive findings. In addition, cautious steps have been taken since the SAR to expand the "tool-box" to address more effectively the human dimensions of climate as both causes and consequences of change and to deal more directly with cross-sectoral issues concerning vulnerability, adaptation, and decisionmaking. In particular, a greater number of studies have begun to apply methods and tools for costing and valuing effects, treating uncertainties, integrating effects across sectors and regions, and applying decision analytic frameworks for evaluating adaptive capacity. Overall, these modest methodological developments are encouraging analyses that will build a more solid foundation for understanding how decisions regarding adaptation to future climate change might be taken. [2.8]

2.1. Detecting Responses to Climate Change using Indicator Species or Systems

Since the SAR, methods have been developed and applied to the detection of present impacts of 20th century climate change on abiotic and biotic systems. Assessment of impacts on human and natural systems that already have occurred as a result of recent climate change is an important complement to model projections of future impacts. Such detection is impeded by multiple, often inter-correlated, nonclimatic forces that concurrently affect those systems. Attempts to overcome this problem have involved the use of indicator species (e.g., butterflies, penguins, frogs, and sea anemones) to detect responses to climate change and to infer more general impacts of climate change on natural systems (e.g., in native meadows, coastal Antarctica, tropical cloud forest, and the Pacific rocky intertidal, respectively). An important component of this detection process is the search for systematic patterns of change across many studies that are consistent with expectations, based on observed or predicted changes in climate. Confidence in attribution of these observed changes to climate change increases as studies are replicated across diverse systems and geographic regions. Even though studies now number in the hundreds, some regions and systems remain underrepresented. [ 2.2]

To investigate possible links between observed changes in regional climate and biological or physical processes in ecosystems, the author team gathered more than 2,500 articles on climate and one of the following entities: animals, plants, glaciers, sea ice, and ice on lakes or streams. To determine if these entities have been influenced by changing climate, only studies meeting at least two of the following criteria were included:

  • A trait of these entities (e.g., range boundary, melting date) shows a change over time.
  • The trait is correlated with changes in local temperature.
  • Local temperature changed over time.

At least two of these three criteria had to exhibit a statistically significant correlation. Only temperature was considered because it is well established in the literature how it influences the entities examined and because temperature trends are more globally homogeneous than other locally varying climatic factors, such as precipitation changes. Selected studies must also have examined at least 10 years of data; more than 90% had a time span of more than 20 years.

These stringent criteria reduced the number of studies used in the analysis to 44 animal and plant studies that cover more than 600 species. Of these species, about 90% (more than 550) show changes in traits over time. Of these 550+ species, about 80% (more than 450) show change in a direction expected given scientific understanding of known mechanisms that relate temperature to each of the species traits. The probability that more than 450 species of 550+ would show changes in the directions expected by random chance is negligible.

Sixteen studies examining glaciers, sea ice, snow cover extent/ snow melt, or ice on lakes or streams included more than 150 sites. Of these 150+ sites, 67% (100+) show changes in traits over time. Of these 100+ sites, about 99% (99+) exhibited trends in a direction expected, given scientific understanding of known mechanisms that relate temperatures to physical processes that govern change in that trait. The probability that 99+ of 100+ sites would show changes in the directions expected by chance alone is negligible. [5.2, 5.4, 19.2]

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