How Should Biologists Measure Climate Change?

Post provided by Christopher Nadeau

Climate change could cause the extinction of one in six species and change the abundance and distribution of those that remain (Urban, 2015). This doesn’t necessarily mean that one in six species in your backyard will go extinct though. Climate change impacts will vary greatly around the globe, with some regions seeing disproportionate effects.

The degree to which climate change will affect species in your region depends on many factors (e.g., land use and species traits), but the amount of climate change that species experience in your region – known as climate change exposure – will certainly be important. For that reason, measuring and mapping climate change exposure is critical for predicting where climate change will have the biggest impacts. Yet, biologists have no agreed upon method to measure exposure and different methods can produce dramatically different results.

A Simple Measure of Exposure and its Limitations

Climate can be defined as a statistical description of weather (e.g., temperature, precipitation) over the course of a long time period, usually 30 years. Most often climate is reduced to the average value of a particular weather variable over a 30-year period of interest. Climate change is then measured as the difference between the averages in two time periods; say the predicted average between 2070-2099 minus the average between 1971-2000.

Projected changes in annual average temperature between 1971-2000 and 2070-2099

Projected changes in annual average temperature between 1971-2000 and 2070-2099.

For example, the map to the left shows projected exposure to changes in average annual temperature. This map suggests that species in the arctic will be exposed to the most temperature change while species in the southern hemisphere will experience the least change. However, there are many problems with this interpretation. Continue reading