Elvira Poloczanska on How Climate Change Affects Marine Life

Fast Moving Front Commentary, September 2011

Elvira Poloczanska

Article: Climate change and Australian marine life


Addresses: Poloczanska, ES;Babcock, RC;Butler, A;Hobday, A;Hoegh-Guldberg, O;Kunz, TJ;Matear, R;Milton, DA;Okey, TA;Richardson, AJ
Journal: OCEANOGR MAR BIOL, 45: 407-478 2007
Addresses: CSIRO Marine & Atmospher Res, Wealth Oceans Flagship, POB 120, Cleveland, Qld 4163, Australia.
CSIRO Marine & Atmospher Res, Wealth Oceans Flagship, Cleveland, Qld 4163, Australia.
CSIRO Marine & Atmospher Res, Wealth Oceans Flagship, Floreat, WA 6913, Australia.
(Addresses have been truncated)

Elvira Poloczanska talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about this month's Fast Moving Fronts paper in the field of Plant & Animal Science.


SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

Much of our knowledge of the marine system comes from northern hemisphere systems which may not be easily transferable to Australian systems given the unique biological, geological, and oceanographic conditions. This paper is the first comprehensive summary of observed and expected climate change impacts for Australian marine systems. It provides projections of marine climate for the Australian region and reviews responses of marine organisms across coastal, pelagic, and offshore benthic environments.

Climate change ecology is a rapidly expanding field, and we lay out some basic foundations for regional impacts and adaptation research in our study—which means it is used as a reference base by the Australian science community. Rigorous attribution of ecological change to climate change requires a priori expectations of responses (phenology, distribution, abundance, condition) and this paper provides general expectations of responses to climate change.

We also present a simple schematic of physical and chemical changes in the marine environment in response to rising atmospheric CO2, and we often see this diagram used in presentations at conferences and meetings.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

This paper is a synthesis covering observed and expected responses to climate change across key taxa groups, which include primary producers such as phytoplankton and seagrass, foundation species such as tropical corals and giant kelp, iconic taxa such as cetaceans and marine turtles, and commercial species such as pelagic fish and crustaceans. Where information is lacking for Australia, we draw from experimental and modeling evidence and on climate change responses from outside Australia.

"Climate change ecology is a rapidly expanding field, and we lay out some basic foundations for regional impacts and adaptation research in our study—which means it is used as a reference base by the Australian science community."

We found that while notable impacts of climate change have been observed throughout the world, evidence for climate impacts on Australian marine life is sparse, which we have attributed mainly to a lack of appropriate monitoring and datasets.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Australia is a maritime country: more than 90% of our population lives within 120 km of the coast. Our marine ecosystems are important to our cultural identity as well as socially and economically. Climate change has the potential to cause widespread disruption to marine ecosystems and the services they provide.

This paper provides an overview of the state of our knowledge of how Australian marine systems are responding to climate change, from tropical coral reefs in the north of the country to cool-water giant kelp forests in the south. Monitoring and anticipating impacts of climate change will allow our societies and businesses to adapt to the changes, and in some cases take advantage of opportunities.

However, there are a number of ways that human activities affect natural ecosystems. Untangling climate change from these other stressors requires expectations of change (such as earlier breeding, or poleward shifts in distributions) against which to test responses.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

I worked on a project called Marine Biodiversity and Climate Change (MarClim) in the UK that provided evidence of changes in abundance, range, and population structure of intertidal species and related these to changes in climate. Moving to CSIRO, Australia, (2005) afforded me opportunity to continue this research but it was also clear that Australia is lacking in the long marine time-series required for clear climate change signals compared to Europe and the USA.

"Where information is lacking for Australia, we draw from experimental and modeling evidence and on climate change responses from outside Australia."

As a first step, we produced a report on Climate Change and Australian Marine Life funded by the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency). The aim of the report was to assess the risk that climate change poses to Australia’s marine organisms and ecosystems.

This synthesis assists Australian researchers, stakeholders, and policymakers who have a growing concern about marine climate change impacts. The paper rose out of the report, although it was not a simple case of rewriting the report for publication. We had to go back to the drawing board to structure the paper and reviewed much additional information.

One of the challenges in synthesizing the information for this paper is that we covered such a diverse range of species and ecosystems. However, this also proved a benefit as it put me on a very rapid learning curve; it was a good introduction to Australian ecosystems and has given me an overview of climate change issues for Australia marine ecosystems. Working on this synthesis was also a very good introduction to the Australian marine science community, and highlighted that we need strong collaboration across diverse expertise to tackle the challenges of climate change.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

A number of exciting opportunities have arisen since this paper. I have since gone on to help establish the Report Card of Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation for Australia (web). Over 70 authors of 35 institutions contributed to the first card (which includes detailed assessments across a range of physical, and biological groups) and we are about to start the second card with a greater focus on adaptation responses and implications for sectors (tourism, fisheries, conservation).

The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was published the same year as our paper and it was clear that many of the marine studies showing climate change impacts that exist globally were not captured in the meta-analysis to attribute responses to climate change. My colleague Anthony Richardson and I published a policy forum in Science highlighting the shortfall and giving recommendations to address the knowledge gap. We also established an international working group funded by the National Centre of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) to answer key questions about responses to climate change in marine systems. We intend that this work will inform the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

Climate change research has high social and political implications and is under increasing scrutiny in the media. The research is vital to provide our industries and businesses and other sectors with the information they need to make decisions in the face of a changing climate.End

Dr. Elvira Poloczanska
Climate Adaptation Flagship
CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research
Queensland, Australia

KEYWORDS: CLIMATE CHANGE, MARINE LIFE, AUSTRALIA, GREAT BARRIER REEF, UV-B RADIATION, SEA-LEVEL RISE, PRAWNS PENAEUS-MERGUIENSIS, TURTLES CHELONIA-MYDAS, COPEPOD EGG PRODUCTION, LONG-TERM TRENDS, CACIUM CARBONATE SATURATION, SUBTROPICAL WATERS, LOGGERHEAD CARETTA-CARETTA.

 
 

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