Rapid broad-scale ecosystem changes and their consequences for biodiversity

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Biodiversity contributes to and depends on ecosystem structure and associated function. Ecosystem structure, such as the amount and type of tree cover, influences fundamental abiotic variables such as near-ground incoming solar radiation (e.g., Royer et al. 2011), which in turn affects species and associated biodiversity (e.g., Trotter et al. 2008). In many systems, foundational, dominant, or keystone species (or species groups) are important in determining biodiversity, often because of their role in determining ecosystem structure. At spatial scales ranging from ecosystems to regions and larger, structural characteristics of vegetation or other structurally dominant organisms such as corals can influence species diversity, whether focused on alpha diversity (mean species diversity at the habitat level), beta diversity (differentiation among habitats), or gamma diversity (total species diversity across a landscape; Whittaker 1960). Climate change is projected to alter ecosystems at broad scales. In many cases, this will be due to extreme climate events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, the effects of which can be rapid (IPCC 2012). Consequently, rapid broad-scale changes in ecosystems are of increasing concern. Climate change can directly affect species physiology, phenology, and distribution, as highlighted throughout this book (e.g. Citations to chapters in this volume to be added). Changes in one species can also affect other species (Cahill et al. 2013), particularly when dominant or co-dominant species that collectively provide habitat for other species are impacted (e.g. tree canopy architecture in many forest ecosystems; coral species via their reefs). Several rapid ecological changes have occurred at spatial scales that are sufficiently broad enough to represent biome changes (Gonzalez et al. 2010, Settele et al. 2014; Fig. 1 A). Rapid broad-scale changes differ from other patterns of vegetation dynamics in that they result in a “crash” in one or more populations (Breshears et al. 2008) over large areas of the affected region. Rapid broad-scale changes triggered by climate can include mega-fires; drought-triggered tree die-off and associated pest and pathogen outbreaks (Breshears et al. 2005, Safranyik et al. 2007); and hurricanes and wind-throw events (IPCC 2012, 2014). These rapid broad-scale changes can rapidly alter other factors such as resultant microclimate, which in turn can affect numerous other species and associated biodiversity (Royer et al. 2011; Fig. 1B). Many examples of broad-scale changes are documented in the paleoecology literature (Settele et al. 2014), although the temporal resolution at which those events can be resolved is relatively coarse (often centuries or longer). Such broad-scale changes documented in the paleoecology literature provide examples of types of change are likely to be of increasing concern in the future (Settele et al. 2014). Contemporary events have highlighted that broad-scale changes can occur rapidly (years or less; Breshears et al. 2005, Gonzalez et al. 2010, Settele et al. 2014). These rapid broad-scale changes will have important consequences for biodiversity beyond the direct impacts of climate change through the cascading effects associated with ecosystem structural and functional changes. The objective of this chapter is to alert readers to recent and projected rapid ecosystem changes and their potential consequences for biodiversity at ecosystem, landscape and regional scales.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Rapid broad-scale ecosystem changes and their consequences for biodiversity
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Yale University Press
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosys Science Center, Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 11 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Monograph
Larger Work Title Biodiversity and climate change--Transforming the biosphere
First page 80
Last page 90
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