Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: Impacts on ecosystems and human well-being

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1. Please give a brief summary of your work.

Distributions of Earth’s species are changing at accelerating rates, increasingly driven by human-mediated climate change. Plants and animals are moving poleward in both hemispheres, as well as further up mountains and deeper in the sea. Such changes are already altering the composition of ecological communities, but, beyond conservation of natural systems, how and why does this matter? We synthesised evidence that climate-driven species redistribution at regional to global scales is already affecting ecosystem functioning, human well-being, and the dynamics of climate change itself. Production of natural resources required for food security, patterns of disease transmission, and processes of carbon sequestration are all altered by changes in species distribution. We highlight that consideration of these effects of biodiversity redistribution is critical yet lacking in most mitigation and adaptation strategies, including the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

2. Describe your approach and broader findings.

Background. The success of human societies depends intimately on the living components of natural and managed systems. Although the geographical range limits of species are dynamic and fluctuate over time, climate change is impelling the redistribution of life on Earth. For marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species alike, the first response to changing climate is often a shift in location, to stay within preferred environmental conditions. At the cooler extremes of their distributions, species are moving poleward, whereas range limits are contracting at the warmer range edge, where temperatures are no longer tolerable. Because different species respond at different rates and to varying extents, key interactions among species are often disrupted, and new interactions develop. These changes can result in rapid changes in ecosystem functioning, with pervasive and sometimes unexpected consequences that propagate through and affect both biological and human communities.

Approach. In our paper, we undertook a high-level review of the consequences of climate driven species redistribution for human health and culture, trade and economics, and regional and global governance systems. We did this by inviting the scientific committee, session chairs and keynote speakers from the inaugural International Species on The Move conference (www.speciesonthemove.com) to an intensive three-day writing workshop. This interdisciplinary group of experts and early career researchers were from all over the world and had expertise in ecological systems from the poles to the tropics. Our group examined the direct, indirect and interacting impacts of ‘species on the move’ across sectors, including on the health and functioning of ecosystems; measures of human well-being such as disease vectors, food security, disruption to traditional culture and livelihoods; and feedbacks on the climate system itself. We then considered how these impacts – individually and collectively – might affect governance systems and conservation actions across the world. We examined the link between the impacts of climate driven species redistributions and the implementation and achievement of global sustainable development goals.


Findings. Our research demonstrates that species redistributions are already having substantial impacts on economic development, human well-being, and the climate system itself. These impacts are projected to increase rapidly. Critically, the pervasive effects of changes in species distribution transcend single systems or dimensions, with feedbacks and linkages among multiple interacting spatial and temporal scales and through entire ecosystems, inclusive of humans. We found, consistent with other climate impacts, that species redistributions will create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and may trigger new human-human and human-environment conflicts within and between different geographical regions and sectors. International and domestic governance systems will need to be adapted to respond to this challenge. In particular, our paper suggests that climate impacts must rapidly be incorporated into decision making and policy and strategic frameworks to enable negative effects to be minimised and managed. 


3. What is the wider contribution, or impact, to your scientific field(s)?

Our study provides clear and overwhelming evidence of the connections between climate-driven changes in the distribution of biodiversity in natural systems and substantial implications for human communities globally. It also underscores the critical importance of strong action towards reducing climate change as some of the implications of species redistribution cannot be adapted to, and importantly, because the redistribution of species will itself contribute to further climate change. We articulate the kinds of policy, legal and management reforms that will be necessary to adjust to these changes as best as society can hope to, and provide the evidence base for these reforms. The evidence we provide is through a synthesis of scientific and indigenous knowledge from a broad range of disciplines, and in so doing, we showcase the value of large-scale multi-system inter-disciplinary collaborations. These are often higher-risk, and take more time and greater researcher investment to lead to outputs and outcomes. Previous research has shown interdisciplinary research is harder to publish and also more difficult to obtain funding for in the first place.


Our Science article has achieved an amazing level of dissemination and this will help realise our potential for impact. The score on Altmetrics, a measure of online activity, has reached 1300, and at one point our article was ranked in the top 50 tracked outputs of Science ever! We produced a video summarising the basics of research findings that has had almost 2300 views, and wrote an article for The Conversation that has been read close to 33,000 times. PBS NewsHour said our paper was one of 5 important things that had happened in the first 100 days of Trump, and we featured in National Geographic too. 


4. Are there any potential ideas you would like to explore to take this research further?

Climate-driven shifts in species distribution are creating enormous changes in our natural systems and have far-reaching implications for human well-being. Our paper set a future agenda for the interdisciplinary progression of research, policy and practice in the field of species redistribution. Too often, scientific research progresses in disciplinary or system-specific silos, but the speed, magnitude and breadth of impacts from climate-driven species redistributions make this issue too important to restrict progress in that way. We are committed to contributing to a problem-oriented approach to future research.


Our research team plans to extend our work in several specific ways. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGD's) and associated targets under Agenda 2030 set an ambitious agenda for global sustainability. We want to understand the implications of climate-induced changes for achieving these goals and targets, to support effective adjustments to farming, fishing, conservation, and other land management practices. We started this task in our recent paper, highlighting connections between climate change and impacts on natural systems and human communities at a conceptual level, and applying them to a small number of specific examples. These connections need to be assessed in more detail and, where possible, globally and quantitatively to include under‑studied regions. As a research team that collectively spans many countries and multiple disciplines, we are well placed to use holistic, systems-wide research approaches to examine how species redistribution will affect on-the-ground assessment and implementation of the SDG’s. This research will focus particularly on areas identified as redistribution “hotspots”, for environmental and human impacts of climate change.


We hope to build research capacity for this task by mentoring and supporting early career researchers and generating new international and interdisciplinary collaborative research networks.

5. Please share a link for researchers to access a relevant publication, data-set, or thesis.

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We are an interdisciplinary group of researchers ranging from students to Prof''s and everything in between. We are working on how climate-driven species redistribution is changing our world, and w...

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