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

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., 2005).

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 been recognised as important drivers of past and present ecosystem change, particularly of biodiversity (Heywood and Watson, 1995; Fahrig, 2003).

Fire influences community structure by favouring species that tolerate fire or even enhance fire spread, resulting in a relationship between the relative flammability of a species and its relative abundance in a particular community (Bond and Keeley, 2005). As a result, many vegetation types are far from the maximum biomass predicted by regional climate alone (Bond et al., 2005). Geographical shifts in key species or fire may therefore cause fundamental community shifts (Brooks et al., 2004; Schumacher and Bugmann, 2006). Fire-prone vegetation types cover a total of 40% of the world’s land surface (Chapin et al., 2002), and are common in tropical and sub-tropical regions (Bond et al., 2005), and the boreal region (Harden et al., 2000) in particular. Intensified wildfire regimes driven at least partly by 20th century climate change (Gillett et al., 2004; Westerling et al., 2006), appear to be changing vegetation structure and composition with shifts from Picea- to Pinus-dominated communities and 75-95% reductions in tree densities observed in forest-tundra transition in eastern Canada (Lavoie and Sirois, 1998). By contrast, in Quebec, fire frequency appears to have dropped during the 20th century (Bergeron et al., 2001), a trend projected to continue (see Section 4.4.5; Bergeron et al., 2004). Across the entire North American boreal region, however, total burned area from fires increased by a factor of 2.5 between the 1960s and 1990s, while the area burned from human-ignited fires remained constant (Kasischke and Turetsky, 2006). In South-East Asia, by contrast, human activities have significantly altered fire regimes in ways that may be detrimental to the affected ecosystems (Murdiyarso and Lebel, 2007).

Drought facilitated the spread of human-caused fire in tropical regions during the 1997/98 El Niño (Randerson et al., 2005), affecting atmospheric trace gas concentrations such as CO, CH4 and H2 (Langenfelds et al., 2002; Novelli et al., 2003; Kasischke et al., 2005), and CO2 emissions (van der Werf et al., 2004) at hemispheric and global scales. Drought conditions increase Amazon forest flammability (Nepstad et al., 2004). Tropical forest fires are becoming more common (Cochrane, 2003), and have strong negative effects on Amazonian vegetation (Cochrane and Laurance, 2002; Haugaasen et al., 2003), possibly even intensifying rainfall events (Andreae et al., 2004, but see Sections 4.4.1 and 4.4.5 on forest productivity trends).

Significant progress on globally applicable models of fire has been made since the TAR (Thonicke et al., 2001). Modelling suggests increases in wildfire impacts (see Sections 4.4.1 and 4.4.5) during the 21st century under a wide range of scenarios (e.g., Scholze et al., 2006). The implications of the regional and global importance of fire are manifold (Bond et al., 2005). Firstly, fire suppression strategies often have limited impact (Keeley, 2002; Schoennagel et al., 2004; Van Wilgen et al., 2004), and the enhancement of vegetation flammability through more prevalent fire weather (Brown et al., 2004) and the resulting big wildfires threatens human settlements, infrastructure and livelihoods (e.g., Allen Consulting Group, 2005). Secondly, in some ecosystems, including islands, human-caused fires have transformed forests into more flammable shrublands and grasslands (Ogden et al., 1998). Thirdly, the drivers of flammability, such as ecosystem productivity, fuel accumulation and environmental fire risk conditions, are all influenced by climate change (Williams et al., 2001; see Sections 4.4.3, 4.4.4 and 4.4.5).

The spatial impact of insect damage is significant and exceeds that of fire in some ecosystems, but especially in boreal forests (Logan et al., 2003). Spruce bud worm (SBW), for example, defoliated over 20 times the area burned in eastern Ontario between 1941 and 1996 (Fleming et al., 2002). Furthermore, fires tended to occur 3 to 9 years after a SBW outbreak (Fleming et al., 2002), suggesting a greater interaction between these disturbances with further warming. Disturbance by forest tent caterpillar has also increased in western Canada in the past 25 years (Timoney, 2003). In the Mediterranean region, the defoliation of Scots Pine shows a significant association with previous warm winters, implying that future climatic warming may intensify insect damage (Hodar and Zamora, 2004; see Section 4.4.5).

Invasive alien species (IAS) (Chornesky and Randall, 2003) represent a major threat to endemic or native biodiversity in terrestrial and aquatic systems (Sala et al., 2000; Scavia et al., 2002; Occhipinti-Ambrogi and Savini, 2003). Causes of biological invasions are multiple and complex (Dukes and Mooney, 1999), yet some simple models have been developed (Crawley, 1989; Deutschewitz et al., 2003; Chytry et al., 2005; Facon et al., 2006). Alien species invasions also interact with other drivers, sometimes resulting in some unexpected outcomes (Chapuis et al., 2004). Changes in biotic and/or abiotic disturbance regimes are recognised as primary drivers of IAS (Le Maitre et al., 2004), with communities often becoming more susceptible to invasion following extreme events (Smith and Knapp, 1999), such as are projected under future climate change. IAS can also change disturbance regimes through increasing vegetation flammability (Brooks et al., 2004). Overall, ongoing shifts in human-mediated disturbances, insect pests, IAS and fire regimes are very likely to be important in altering regional ecosystem structure, diversity and function (e.g., Timoney, 2003).