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

14.2.2 Ecosystems

Three clear, observable connections between climate and terrestrial ecosystems are the seasonal timing of life-cycle events or phenology, responses of plant growth or primary production, and biogeographic distribution. Direct impacts on organisms interact with indirect effects of ecological mechanisms (competition, herbivory[1], disease), and disturbance (wildfire, hurricanes, human activities).

Phenology, productivity and biogeography

Global daily satellite data, available since 1981, indicate earlier onset of spring ‘greenness’ by 10-14 days over 19 years, particularly across temperate latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (Myneni et al., 2001; Lucht et al., 2002). Field studies confirm these satellite observations. Many species are expanding leaves or flowering earlier (e.g., earlier flowering in lilac - 1.8 days/decade, 1959 to 1993, 800 sites across North America (Schwartz and Reiter, 2000), honeysuckle - 3.8 days/decade, western U.S. (Cayan et al., 2001), and leaf expansion in apple and grape - 2 days/decade, 72 sites in north-eastern U.S. (Wolfe et al., 2005), trembling aspen - 2.6 days/decade since 1900, Edmonton (Beaubien and Freeland, 2000)) (Figure 14.1b). The timing of autumn leaf fall, which is controlled by a combination of temperature, photoperiod and water deficits, shows weaker trends (Badeck et al., 2004).

Net primary production (NPP) in the continental U.S. increased nearly 10% from 1982 to 1998 (Figure 14.1f) (Boisvenue and Running, 2006), with the largest increases in croplands and grasslands of the Central Plains due to improved water balance (Lobell et al., 2002; Nemani et al., 2002; Hicke and Lobell, 2004).

North American forests can be influenced indirectly by climate through effects on disturbance, especially from wildfire, storms, insects and diseases. The area burned in wildfires has increased dramatically over the last three decades (see Box 14.1).

Box 14.1. Accelerating wildfire and ecosystem disturbance dynamics

Since 1980, an average of 22,000 km2/yr has burned in U.S. wildfires, almost twice the 1920 to 1980 average of 13,000 km2/yr (Schoennagel et al., 2004). The forested area burned in the western U.S. from 1987 to 2003 is 6.7 times the area burned from 1970 to 1986 (Westerling et al., 2006). In Canada, burned area has exceeded 60,000 km2/yr three times since 1990, twice the long-term average (Stocks et al., 2002). Wildfire-burned area in the North American boreal region increased from 6,500 km2/yr in the 1960s to 29,700 km2/yr in the 1990s (Kasischke and Turetsky, 2006). Human vulnerability to wildfires has also increased, with a rising population in the wildland-urban interface.

A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread (Running, 2006). Westerling et al. (2006) found that in the last three decades the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased by 78 days, and burn durations of fires >1000 ha in area have increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, in response to a spring-summer warming of 0.87°C. Earlier spring snowmelt has led to longer growing seasons and drought, especially at higher elevations, where the increase in wildfire activity has been greatest (Westerling et al., 2006). In Canada, warmer May to August temperatures of 0.8°C since 1970 are highly correlated with area burned (Figure 14.1c) (Gillett et al., 2004). In the south-western U.S., fire activity is correlated with El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) positive phases (Kitzberger et al., 2001; McKenzie et al., 2004), and higher Palmer Drought Severity Indices.

Insects and diseases are a natural part of ecosystems. In forests, periodic insect epidemics kill trees over large regions, providing dead, desiccated fuels for large wildfires. These epidemics are related to aspects of insect life cycles that are climate sensitive (Williams and Liebhold, 2002). Many northern insects have a two-year life cycle, and warmer winter temperatures allow a larger fraction of overwintering larvae to survive. Recently, spruce budworm in Alaska has completed its life cycle in one year, rather than the previous two (Volney and Fleming, 2000). Mountain pine beetle has expanded its range in British Columbia into areas previously too cold (Carroll et al., 2003). Insect outbreaks often have complex causes. Susceptibility of the trees to insects is increased when multi-year droughts degrade the trees’ ability to generate defensive chemicals (Logan et al., 2003). Recent dieback of aspen stands in Alberta was caused by light snowpacks and drought in the 1980s, triggering defoliation by tent caterpillars, followed by wood-boring insects and fungal pathogens (Hogg et al., 2002).

Wildlife population and community dynamics

North American animals are responding to climate change, with effects on phenology, migration, reproduction, dormancy and geographic range (Walther et al., 2002; Parmesan and Yohe, 2003; Root et al., 2003; Parmesan and Galbraith, 2004; Root et al., 2005). Warmer springs have led to earlier nesting for 28 migrating bird species on the east coast of the U.S. (Butler, 2003) and to earlier egg laying for Mexican jays (Brown et al., 1999) and tree swallows (Dunn and Winkler, 1999). In northern Canada, red squirrels are breeding 18 days earlier than 10 years ago (Reale et al., 2003). Several frog species now initiate breeding calls 10 to 13 days earlier than a century ago (Gibbs and Breisch, 2001). In lowland California, 70% of 23 butterfly species advanced the date of first spring flights by an average 24 days over 31 years (Forister and Shapiro, 2003). Reduced water depth, related to recent warming, in Oregon lakes has increased exposure of toad eggs to UV-B, leading to increased mortality from a fungal parasite (Kiesecker et al., 2001; Pounds, 2001).

Many North American species have shifted their ranges, typically to the north or to higher elevations (Parmesan and Yohe, 2003). Edith’s checkerspot butterfly has become locally extinct in the southern, low-elevation portion of its western North American range but has extended its range 90 km north and 120 m higher in elevation (Parmesan, 1996; Crozier, 2003; Parmesan and Galbraith, 2004). Red foxes have expanded northward in northern Canada, leading to retreat of competitively subordinate arctic foxes (Hersteinsson and Macdonald, 1992).

  1. ^  The consumption of plants by animals.