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

14.4.2 Ecosystems

Several simulations (Cox et al., 2000; Berthelot et al., 2002; Fung et al., 2005) indicate that, over the 21st century, warming will lengthen growing seasons, sustaining forest carbon sinks in North America despite some decreased sink strength resulting from greater water limitations in western forests and higher respiration in the tropics (medium confidence). Impacts on ecosystem structure and function may be amplified by changes in extreme meteorological events and increased disturbance frequencies. Ecosystem disturbances, caused either by humans or by natural events, accelerate both loss of native species and invasion of exotics (Sala et al., 2000).

Primary production

At high latitudes, several models simulate increased NPP as a result of expansion of forests into the tundra and longer growing seasons (Berthelot et al., 2002). In the mid-latitudes, simulated changes in NPP are variable, depending on whether there is sufficient enhancement of precipitation to offset increased evapotranspiration in a warmer climate (Bachelet et al., 2001; Berthelot et al., 2002; Gerber et al., 2004; Woodward and Lomas, 2004). Bachelet et al. (2001) project the areal extent of drought-limited ecosystems to increase by 11%/ºC warming in the continental U.S. By the end of the 21st century, ecosystems in the north-east and south-east U.S. will likely become carbon sources, while the western U.S. remains a carbon sink (Bachelet et al., 2004).

Overall forest growth in North America will likely increase modestly (10-20%) as a result of extended growing seasons and elevated CO2 over the next century (Morgan et al., 2001), but with important spatial and temporal variations (medium confidence). Growth of white spruce in Québec will be enhanced by a 1ºC temperature increase but depressed with a 4ºC increase (Andalo et al., 2005). A 2ºC temperature increase in the Olympic Mountains (U.S.) would cause dominant tree species to shift upward in elevation by 300 to 600m, causing temperate species to replace sub-alpine species over 300 to 500 years (Zolbrod and Peterson, 1999). For widespread species such as lodgepole pine, a 3ºC temperature increase would increase growth in the northern part of its range, decrease growth in the middle, and decimate southern forests (Rehfeldt et al., 2001).

Population and community dynamics

For many amphibians, whose production of eggs and migration to breeding ponds is intimately tied to temperature and moisture, mismatches between breeding phenology and pond drying can lead to reproductive failure (Beebee, 1995). Differential responses among species in arrival or persistence in ponds will likely lead to changes in community composition and nutrient flow in ponds (Wilbur, 1997). Changes in plant species composition in response to climate change can facilitate other disturbances, including fire (Smith et al., 2000) and biological invasion (Zavaleta and Hulvey, 2004). Bioclimate modelling based on output from five GCMs suggests that, over the next century, vertebrate and tree species richness will decrease in most parts of the conterminous U.S., even though long-term trends (over millennia) ultimately favour increased richness in some taxa and locations (Currie, 2001). Based on relationships between habitat area and biodiversity, 15 to 37% of plant and animal species in a global sample are likely to be ‘committed to extinction’ by 2050, although actual extinctions will be strongly influenced by human forces and could take centuries (Thomas et al., 2004).