25 December 2009

Climate change is on the move

Ecosystems will need to shift by about a quarter-mile per year to keep up with climate change in the future, says a Nature paper published today.

Many studies have looked at how plants and animals will need to shift location in order to adapt to changing temperatures, for example moving northward in the northern hemisphere as things get toastier closer to the equator. But the new work examines the speed at which critters will shift across various temperature gradients. "Things are on the move, faster than we anticipated," team member Healy Hamilton, of the California Academy of Sciences, told Reuters.

As one might expect, topography turns out to play a big role in how far animals must move. Rugged areas such as mountain ranges have many microclimates that can be entered just by shifting a little up or down in elevation. Flatter areas such as valleys mean more miles need to be covered.

"How far do you have to go from a given point to change your climate? On a mountain, it's not very far,” lead author Scott Loarie of the Carnegie Institution for Science in California told Discovery News. “But if you're in the middle of the Amazon basin, you have to go very far to change your climate."

The bottom line? Conservationists looking to preserve habitats might need to look at larger areas to save in flatter areas than in mountainous ones.

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