IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

13.4 Summary of expected key future impacts and vulnerabilities

13.4.1 Natural ecosystems

Tropical plant species may be sensitive to small variations of climate, since biological systems respond slowly to relatively rapid changes of climate. This fact might lead to a decrease of species diversity. Based on Hadley Centre Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Model (AOGCM) projections for A2 emissions scenarios, there is the potential for extinction of 24% of 138 tree species of the central Brazil savannas (Cerrados) by 2050 for a projected increase of 2°C in surface temperature (Siqueira and Peterson, 2003; Thomas et al., 2004). By the end of the century, 43% of 69 tree plant species studied could become extinct in Amazonia (Miles et al., 2004). In terms of species and biome redistributions, larger impacts would occur over north-east Amazonia than over western Amazonia. Several AOGCM scenarios indicate a tendency towards ‘savannisation’ of eastern Amazonia (Nobre et al., 2005) and the tropical forests of central and south Mexico (Peterson et al., 2002; Arriaga and Gómez, 2004). In north-east Brazil the semi-arid vegetation would be replaced by the vegetation of arid regions (Nobre et al., 2005), as in most of central and northern Mexico (Villers and Trejo, 2004).

Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000). It is more probable that forests will be replaced by ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas.

The study of climate-induced changes in key ecosystem processes (Scholze et al., 2005) considers the distribution of outcomes within three sets of model runs grouped according to the amount of global warming they simulate: <2°C, 2-3°C and >3°C. A high risk of forest loss is shown for Central America and Amazonia, more frequent wildfire in Amazonia, more runoff in north-western South America, and less runoff in Central America. More frequent wildfires are likely (an increase in frequency of 60% for a temperature increase of 3°C) in much of South America. Extant forests are destroyed with lower probability in Central America and Amazonia. The risks of forest losses in some parts of Amazonia exceed 40% for temperature increases of more than 3°C (see Figure 13.3).

The tropical cloud forests in mountainous regions will be threatened if temperatures increase by 1°C to 2°C during the next 50 years due to changes in the altitude of the cloud-base during the dry season, which would be rising by 2 m/yr. In places with low elevation and isolated mountains, some plants will become locally extinct because the elevation range would not permit natural adaptation to temperature increase (FAO, 2002). The change in temperature and cloud-base in these forests could have substantial effects on the diversity and composition of species. For example, in the cloud forest of Monteverde Costa Rica, these changes are already happening. Declines in the frequency of mist days have been strongly associated with a decrease in population of amphibians (20 of 50 species) and probably also bird and reptile populations (Pounds et al., 1999).

Modelling studies show that the ranges occupied by many species will become unsuitable for them as the climate changes (IUCN, 2004). Using modelling projections of species distributions for future climate scenarios, Thomas et al. (2004) show, for the year 2050 and for a mid-range climate change scenario, that species extinction in Mexico could sharply increase: mammals 8% or 26% loss of species (with or without dispersal), birds 5% or 8% loss of species (with or without dispersal), and butterflies 7% or 19% loss of species (with or without dispersal).