climate change and ecological systems

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					                                 Climate Change and Ecological Systems
                                        ‘Vision Document’ for IHRR

Until recently the prevailing paradigm in much of ecological research was one of organisms, communities
and ecosystems in „balance‟ with their environment (“the balance of nature”). Although populations of
organisms, communities of organisms and ecosystems were recognised to be characterised by dynamic
processes, these dynamics were viewed as being played out against a background of an unchanging wider
physical environment. In particular, climatic conditions, whilst recognised to be variable at time scales
from minutes to inter-annual, were viewed as invariant in their long-term mean, except over „geological‟
time scales that were not generally considered relevant by ecologists. There is now, however, general
recognition that anthropogenic alterations of the Earth system, and especially of atmospheric composition
and the character of the land surface, have led to changes in global and regional climatic conditions, and
will continue to do so at least throughout the present century. This recognition has stimulated new
awareness of the need to understand how the biosphere responds to, or interacts with, changes in the
climate system, as well as a wider awareness of the „natural‟ variability of climate at all time scales.
The need for such new understanding of the interactions between the biosphere and the climate system is
rendered more urgent by global commitments to conserve biodiversity (UN CBD) and to limit climatic
change to levels that will not cause damage to ecosystems (UN FCCC), as well as by the increasing
recognition of the importance and value to society of „ecosystem services‟. Furthermore, whilst the
developed world is responsible for much of the problem, the developing world and indigenous peoples
worldwide are expected to suffer more severe impacts. The developing world often lacks the resources to
address the consequences of climatic change, whilst indigenous peoples typically rely heavily and directly
upon ecosystem services.

IHRR Niche
There are many identifiable hazards and risks associated with the interactions between ecological systems
and the changing climate. The risk to biodiversity, and to the longer-term future functioning of ecological
systems if global biodiversity is substantially reduced, is now widely recognised. The risk that ecosystem
services, such as the provision of freshwater, provision of clean and breathable air, stabilisation of land
surfaces and uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, may be negatively affected also is now
recognised. Both biodiversity loss and impairment of ecosystem services pose potentially major threats to
society. This is true whether we consider indigenous peoples, such as those of the Arctic that depend
upon reindeer or seals, and thus upon the continued availability of suitable habitats for those species, or
the populations of cities in the developed world that depend upon the availability of adequate clean water
resources, and thus upon ecological systems such as mires that act as natural „reservoirs‟ regulating the
passage of precipitation into water courses and hence into the water supply system.
Durham has a well-established international profile and reputation in the field of the study of the interactions
between the biosphere and the climate system. Our particular combination of strengths, that includes
internationally recognised excellence in Quaternary palaeoecology and palaeoenvironmental studies (IES
(SBBS), Geog., ES), in studies of the interaction between the land surface and the climate system (IES), in
studies of the impacts of climatic change upon organisms and ecosystems (IES) and in studies of the
carbon and water cycles (IES, ES, Geog.), is novel, at least in the UK context. The IHRR, however, offers
new potential to explore more explicitly the risks and hazards arising from the interactions between
ecological systems and the changing climate. It also offers opportunities to link our relevant strengths in
the natural sciences with those complementary strengths in the social sciences, especially in relation to
issues of societal perceptions of risk and the environment, participatory approaches to stakeholder
involvement, as well as in associated fields of community development, indigenous peoples and
sustainability (Geog., Anth.). Such linkages are vital because, to be effective and of value to society, the
implications of the research in the natural sciences must enter into a dialogue with society generally, as
well as with stakeholders and policy makers, in order that socially-robust responses may be taken to
negotiate the outcomes from this research. In many cases, the natural science research results may point
to new or alternative forms of governance, and may require societal and political „buy in‟ to ensure effective
change. Understanding the social and political factors that are likely to foster or impede the take-up of
collective public action will be a distinctive strength of IHRR activities.
Research plans
Given the strengths in Durham, our track record, and the needs and opportunities for research in this
general area, three sub-themes are proposed in which a combination of fundamental and applied research
in the natural and social sciences would be undertaken.

Biodiversity and climatic change
Adaptation strategies for the conservation of biodiversity are urgently needed and fundamental research is
required to assist in the design and development of these strategies. Key issues include: The extent to
which current networks of protected areas will remain effective in the face of climatic change; the extent to
which protected area networks are „functional‟ in the sense that they form connected networks; and the
characteristics that that a landscape must have if it is to be „permeable‟ to species adjusting to climatic
change. There is also an ongoing need to research and assess such fundamental issues as the resilience
of ecological systems, the patterning and extent of the genetic variance of species that may facilitate or
hinder their adaptation to climatic change, and identification of those components of ecological systems at
greatest risk as a consequence of climatic change and/or of those regions where such systems are at
greatest risk. To be of value to society, the results of such research in the natural sciences must be
transformed into policies and appropriate governance mechanisms designed to enable the implementation
of such policies.
A more fundamental, but potentially far-reaching, issue is that of the extent to which loss of biodiversity may
impact upon ecosystem function and hence upon the delivery of ecosystem services. Although not an
area in which Durham currently has strength, this topic would provide a link to the second sub-theme and is
an area towards which future appointments could be targeted.
A cross-cutting issue relevant to this sub-theme and also to the „Energy‟ theme within IHRR is that of the
conflicting demands for land and landscape management arising from the commitments to biodiversity
conservation on the one hand and from the commitments to develop renewable energy sources, notably
biofuels, wind and tidal barrages.

Ecosystem functions, ecosystem services and climatic change
Projecting how ecosystem function may be impacted by climatic change, and hence the potential future
capacity of ecosystems to provide vital services upon which society depends, requires greater
understanding of ecosystem processes, and especially of the dynamics of the response of these processes
to climatic change. Key issues include: The potential carbon balance of peatlands, of which the UK has
large areas, under a changed climate; the impacts of climatic changes, including changes in the depth
and/or duration of seasonal snow-cover, upon Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems; and the complex
impacts upon hydrological systems arising from changes in ecological systems, including such phenomena
as the drying of peatlands and the increased water use efficiency of many plants as a result of the
increased concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because of the dependence of society upon
these ecosystem services, this sub-theme offers obvious potential for inter-disciplinary research combining
our strengths in the natural and social sciences.
Because many of the ecosystem services upon which society depends are related to fundamental
biogeochemical cycles, including the water cycle, there is clear scope for synergy between this sub-theme
and the „Water‟ theme within IHRR. In the context of ecosystem services, there is also great scope for
cross-cutting work with the “Earth processes” theme through work on the role of vegetation in landslide
prevention and how these processes might change under future changes in rainfall and vegetation cover.

Ecosystems as interacting components of the Earth system
An area of considerable uncertainty, and one with the potential to spring potentially unpleasant surprises as
climate changes, is that of the interactions between the land surface and the climate system. The
potential for feedbacks, whether positive or negative, as a result of changes in ecological systems as a
consequence of climatic change is of particular concern. Because in many parts of the world, for example
the humid tropics, direct and local human actions are currently the principal cause of changes in land-
surface characteristics, even though their importance may become secondary in coming decades as the
impacts of climatic change become greater, this sub-theme once again requires an inter-disciplinary
approach spanning the natural and social sciences. One area of great interest and importance is that of
uncertainty: how to reduce uncertainty in risk assessments and how to engage with uncertainty when
conveying the outcomes of such assessments to policymakers and the public. Clear potential for cross-
cutting activities exist with the “Health” theme and with Professor Steve Lindsay at IES on health and
disease risks from climate change.

Resources and support
The primary resource is the internationally recognised group of researchers in Durham, including the
recently appointed RCUK Fellow (Dr Ralf Ohlemüller), with expertise in ecosystem science, biogeography,
plant physiology and genetics, Quaternary palaeoecology and palaeoenvironments, remote sensing and
the development and application of both statistical and process-based models of ecological systems. This
theme offers great potential to combine the expertise of these natural scientists with social scientists with
complementary research interests.
Much of the relevant ongoing research is carried out as part of collaborating teams; particularly important
national links are those with the Universities of York, Sheffield and Edinburgh, whilst internationally those
with Lund University (Sweden) and PIK (Germany) are especially important.
Funds to support past, present and ongoing research comes from NERC, the EC and various government
agencies and non-government organisations.
In terms of IHRR support, there is scope to encourage departments to target future appointments to areas
that will strengthen both their own research and that of IHRR. We would also propose that IHRR should
host both a series of public lectures by high profile researchers in this field – with benefits to IHRR in terms
of widening the recognition of our activities, and should organise in 2008 an international workshop on an
appropriate theme – one topical possibility would be: “Designing and managing landscapes to support
ecological adaptation to climatic change”.

Anth.     Department of Anthropology
CBD       Convention on Biodiversity
ES        Department of Earth Science
FCCC      Framework Convention on Climate Change
Geog.     Department of Geography
IES       Institute of Ecosystem Science
SBBS      School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
UN        United Nations

Prof Brian Huntley and Dr Ralf Ohlemüller
22 June 2007