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Climate Change Impacts on Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems

As part of the IPCC’s AR6 cycle, Working Group II- which focuses on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability- published their most recent report in February 2022.  Chapter 2 of the WGII report focuses specifically on impacts and risks of climate change to terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. It presents strong evidence from all continents about species’ changes in range, phenology, physiology and morphology and the likely attribution of these impacts to changing climatic conditions. Changes in wildlife diseases, insect pests, extinction events, whole biome shifts, wildfires, and drought-related ecosystem changes can also be traced back to climate change, often with high confidence. At the same time, the report acknowledges remaining evidence gaps and uneven geographic coverage. As work on the AR7 cycle begins, we are highlighting recent research published in PLOS’ environmental journals that contributes to addressing these knowledge gaps.

The IPCC WGII report is clear about the importance of ecosystem services, which the report authors sort into 18 categories. However, it is stressed that research on the observed impacts of climate change on 14 of the 18 ecosystem services is still limited. Some of the areas where the evidence base is still lacking include the regulation of air quality as well as freshwater flows and supplies. Other aspects of the interactions between climate change and ecosystem services in need of further study include protection from natural hazards and extreme events, the impacts of detrimental organisms, effects on food production systems, the provision of  other materials and natural resources, and impacts on pollination and seed dispersal.

Below we have brought together a range of peer-reviewed articles related to the interactions between climate change and ecosystem services and functions from across PLOS’s environmental journals:

Tree mortality

Assessing risks and opportunities for tropical forests in the face of sustainable development, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation

The hidden value of trees: Quantifying the ecosystem services of tree lineages and their major threats across the contiguous US, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation

Ecological changes in freshwater ecosystems

Dynamics of pelagic mucilage produced by the invasive, cyclotelloid diatom, Lindavia intermedia, in oligotrophic lakes of New Zealand, PLOS Water

Surface water area in a changing climate: Differential responses of Alaska’s subarctic lakes, PLOS Climate

Microplastics and anthropogenic fibre concentrations in lakes reflect surrounding land use, PLOS Biology

Coastal ecosystem changes

Tackling the mangrove restoration challenge, PLOS Biology

ENSO-driven extreme oscillations in mean sea level destabilise critical shoreline mangroves—An emerging threat, PLOS Climate

Sea level rise drives carbon and habitat loss in the U.S. mid-Atlantic coastal zone, PLOS Climate

Regulation of detrimental organisms and biological processes

Realizing UN decade on ecosystem restoration through a nature-based approach: A case review of management of biological invasions in protected areas, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation

The EICAT+ framework enables classification of positive impacts of alien taxa on native biodiversity, PLOS Biology

Agricultural ecosystem changes

A multi-level assessment of changes in stakeholder constellations, interest and influence on ecosystem services under different landscape scenarios in southwestern Ethiopia, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation

Species range shifts

High-velocity upward shifts in vegetation are ubiquitous in mountains of western North America, PLOS Climate

Seasonal timing on a cyclical Earth: Towards a theoretical framework for the evolution of phenology, PLOS Biology

Who will be where: Climate driven redistribution of fish habitat in southern Germany, PLOS Climate


Biodiversity research and conservation

In addition to gaps in evidence regarding most ecosystem services, the report notes an outstanding need to accurately characterize interactions of climate change and other, non-climate factors that cause ecological change. In this context, research into genotypic and phenotypic diversity as a source of ecosystem resilience is still needed to inform projections of risk. Biologically-informed tools are also needed for more accurate projections of climate change impacts on species distributions and ecosystem functions. We present here recent studies that address these issues in both terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems:

Characterizing biological responses to climate variability and extremes to improve biodiversity projections, PLOS Climate

Environmental DNA (eDNA) based fish biodiversity assessment of two Himalayan rivers of Nepal reveals diversity differences and highlights new species distribution records, PLOS Water

A multi-spatial analysis and the balanced requirements of freshwater mussels (Bivalvia: Unionidae) and urban inhabitants in the Cuyahoga River watershed, PLOS Water

Long-term effect of forest harvesting on boreal species assemblages under climate change, PLOS Climate

Lastly, the report’s authors call for more studies on adaptation strategies, particularly for biodiversity conservation. While many adaptation measures have been proposed and implementation is starting, evaluations of success are not widely undertaken or reported. The importance of robust monitoring and evaluation of adaptation strategies cannot be understated for informing evidence-based action, as called out in both Opinion and Research Articles here:

The potential for nature-based solutions to combat the freshwater biodiversity crisis, PLOS Water

Optimal restoration for pollination services increases forest cover while doubling agricultural profits, PLOS Biology

Assisted migration experiments along a distance/elevation gradient show limits to supporting home site communities, PLOS Climate

The EDGE2 protocol: Advancing the prioritisation of Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered species for practical conservation action, PLOS Biology

Threat management priorities for conserving Antarctic biodiversity, PLOS Biology

Setting ambitious international restoration objectives for terrestrial ecosystems for 2030 and beyond, PLOS Sustainability and Transformation

Solar circulator to restore dissolved oxygen in a hypoxic ice-covered lake, PLOS Water


Could your research help to fill knowledge gaps identified by the IPCC reports? Learn more about opportunities to publish your work Open Access in one of our environmental journals by visiting our websites:

PLOS Biology / PLOS Climate / PLOS Sustainability & Transformation / PLOS Water

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