Ice Age? No. Abrupt warmings and hunting together polished off Holarctic megafauna

24 07 2015
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Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

Did ice ages cause the Pleistocene megafauna to go extinct? Contrary to popular opinion, no, they didn’t. But climate change did have something to do with them, only it was global warming events instead.

Just out today in Science, our long-time-coming (9 years in total if you count the time from the original idea to today) paper ‘Abrupt warmings drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover‘ led by Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Chris Turney of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre demonstrates for the first time that abrupt warming periods over the last 60,000 years were at least partially responsible for the collapse of the megafauna in Eurasia and North America.

You might recall that I’ve been a bit sceptical of claims that climate changes had much to do with megafauna extinctions during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, mainly because of the overwhelming evidence that humans had a big part to play in their demise (surprise, surprise). What I’ve rejected though isn’t so much that climate had nothing to do with the extinctions; rather, I took issue with claims that climate change was the dominant driver. I’ve also had problems with blanket claims that it was ‘always this’ or ‘always that’, when the complexity of biogeography and community dynamics means that it was most assuredly more complicated than most people think.

I’m happy to say that our latest paper indeed demonstrates the complexity of megafauna extinctions, and that it took a heap of fairly complex datasets and analyses to demonstrate. Not only were the data varied – the combination of scientists involved was just as eclectic, with ancient DNA specialists, palaeo-climatologists and ecological modellers (including yours truly) assembled to make sense of the complicated story that the data ultimately revealed. Read the rest of this entry »





Get boreal

7 06 2012

I’ve been a little quiet this last week because I’ve had to travel to the other side of the planet for what turned out to be a very interesting and scientifically lucrative workshop. After travelling 31 hours from Adelaide to Umeå in northern Sweden, I wondered to myself if it was going to be worth it for a 2.5-day workshop on a little island (Norrbyskär) in the Baltic Sea (which, as it turned out, didn’t have internet access).

The answer is a categorical ‘yes’!

Many of you know that I’ve dabbled in boreal forest conservation in the past, but I could never claim any real expertise in the area. Hence it came as something of a shock when Jon Moen of Umeå University asked me to attend a specialist workshop focused loosely on making the plight and importance of the boreal forest more widely acknowledged. I dragged my feet initially, but Jon convinced me that I could add something to the mix.

It was a small workshop, but well-represented by all boreal countries save Norway (i.e., we had Russians, Swedes, Finns, Canadians and Americans – this Australian was indeed the odd one out). We also had a wide array of expertise, from carbon accountants, political scientists, political economists, native cultures experts, ecologists to foresters. Our mandate – justify why we should pay more attention to this globally important region.

Just how important is the boreal forest? We managed to unearth some little-appreciated facts: Read the rest of this entry »





Scoping the future threats and solutions to biodiversity conservation

4 12 2009

Way back in 1989, Jared Diamond defined the ‘evil quartet’ of habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduced species and extinction cascades as the principal drivers of modern extinctions. I think we could easily update this to the ‘evil quintet’ that includes climate change, and I would even go so far as to add extinction synergies as a the sixth member of the ‘evil sextet’.

But the future could hold quite a few more latent threats to biodiversity, and a corresponding number of potential solutions to its degradation. That’s why Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University recently got together with some other well-known scientists and technology leaders to do a ‘horizon scanning’ exercise to define what these threats and solutions might be in the immediate future. It’s an interesting, eclectic and somewhat enigmatic list, so I thought I’d summarise it here. The paper is entitled A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 and was recently published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

In no particular order or relative rank, Sutherland and colleagues list the following 15 ‘issues’ that I’ve broadly divided into ‘Emerging Threats’ and ‘Potential Solutions’:

Emerging Threats

  1. Microplastic pollution – The massive increase in plastics found in the world’s waterways and oceans really doesn’t have much focus right now in conservation research, but it should. We really don’t know how much we’re potentially threatening species with this source of pollution.
  2. Nanosilver in wastewater – The ubiquity of antimicrobial silver oxide or ions in products these days needs careful consideration for what the waste might be doing to our microbial communities that keep ecosystems alive and functioning.
  3. Stratospheric aerosols – A simultaneous solution and threat. Creating what would in effect be an artificial global cooling by injecting particles like sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere might work to cool the planet down somewhat. However, it would not reduce carbon dioxide, ocean acidification or other greenhouse gas-related changes. This strikes me as a potential for serious mucking up of the global climate and only a band-aid solution to the real problem.
  4. Deoxygenation of the oceans – Very scary. Ironically today I was listening to a talk by Martin Kennedy on the deep-time past of ocean hypoxia and he suggests we’re well on our way to a situation where our shelf waters could essentially become too anoxic for marine life to persist. It’s happened before, and rapid climate change makes the prospect plausible within less than a century. And you thought acidification was scary.
  5. Changes in denitrifying bacteria – Just like we’re changing the carbon cycle, we’re buggering up the nitrogen cycle as well. Changing our water bodies to nitrogen sources rather than sinks could fundamentally change marine ecosystems for the worse.
  6. High-latitude volcanism – One of these horrible positive feedback ideas. Reducing high-latitude ice cover exposes all these slumbering volcanoes that once ‘released’, start increasing atmospheric gas concentrations and contributing to faster ice melt and sea level rise.
  7. Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonisation – Warming polar seas and less ice mean fewer barriers to species movements. Expect Arctic ecosystems to be a hotbed of invasion, regime shifts and community reshuffling as a result.
  8. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish – Not one I would have focussed on, but interesting. These spiny, venomous fish like to eat a lot of other species, and so represent a potentially important invasive species in the marine realm.
  9. REDD and non-forested ecosystems – Heralded as a great potential coup for forest preservation and climate change mitigation, focussing on maintaining forests for their carbon sequestration value might divert pressure toward non-forested habitats and ironically, threaten a whole new sphere of species.
  10. International land acquisition – Global financial crises and dwindling food supplies mean that governments are acquiring more and more huge tracts of land for agricultural development. While this might solve some immediate issues, it could potentially threaten a lot more undeveloped land in the long run, putting even more pressure on habitats.

Potential Solutions

  1. Synthetic meat – Ever thought about eating a sausage grown in a vat rather than cut from a dead pig? It could become the norm and a way of reducing the huge pressure on terrestrial and aquatic systems for the production of livestock and fish for human protein provision.
  2. Artificial life – Both a risk and a potential solution. While I’ve commented before on the pointlessness of cloning technology for conservation, the ability to create genomes and reinvigorate species on the brink is an exciting prospect. It’s also frightening as hell because we don’t know how all these custom-made genomes might react and transform naturally evolved ones.
  3. Biochar – Burn organic material (e.g., plant matter) in the absence of oxygen, you get biochar. This essentially sequesters a lot of carbon that can then be put underground. The upshot is that agricultural yields can also increase. Would there be a trade-off though between land available for biochar sequestration and natural habitats?
  4. Mobile-sensing technology – Not so much a solution per se, but the rapid acceleration of remote technology will make our ability to measure and predict the subtleties of ecosystem and climate change much more precise. A lot more work and application required here.
  5. Assisted colonisationI’ve blogged about this before. With such rapid shifts in climate, we might be obliged to move species around so that they can keep up with rapidly changing conditions. Many pros and cons here, not least of which is exacerbating the invasive species problems around the globe.

Certainly some interesting ideas here and worth a thought or two. I wonder if the discipline of ‘conservation biology’ might even exist in 50-100 years – we might all end up being climate or agricultural engineers with a focus on biodiversity-friendly technology. Who knows?

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgSutherland, W., Clout, M., Côté, I., Daszak, P., Depledge, M., Fellman, L., Fleishman, E., Garthwaite, R., Gibbons, D., & De Lurio, J. (2009). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003





Ice: canary in the global coal mine

14 09 2009

An intended pun from James Balog in another classic TED talk. If you thought climate change was merely a prediction from mathematical models, think again. The biodiversity implications are staggering.

“We have a problem of perception… Not enough people really get it yet.” J. Balog

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Fragmen borealis: degradation of the world’s last great forest

12 08 2009
© energyportal.eu

© energyportal.eu

I have the dubious pleasure today of introducing a recently published paper of ours that was at the same time both intellectually stimulating and demoralising to write. I will make no apologies for becoming emotionally involved in the scientific issues about which my colleagues and I write (as long as I can maintain with absolute sincerity that the data used and conclusions drawn are as objectively presented as I am capable), and this paper probably epitomises that stance more than most I’ve written during my career.

The topic is especially important to me because of its subtle, yet potentially disastrous consequences for biodiversity and climate change. It’s also a personal issue because it’s happening in a place I used to (many, many years ago) call home.

Despite comprising about a third of the world’s entire forested area and harbouring some of the lowest human densities anywhere, the great boreal forest that stretches across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia is under severe threat.

Surprised that we’re not talking about tropical deforestation for once? Surprised that so-called ‘developed’ nations are pilfering the last great carbon sink and biodiversity haven left on the planet? If you have read any of the posts on this blog, you probably shouldn’t be.

The paper today appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and is entitled Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity (by CJA Bradshaw, IG Warkentin & NS Sodhi). It’s essentially a review of the status of the boreal forest from a biodiversity perspective, and includes a detailed assessment of the degree of its fragmentation, species threat, climate- and human-influenced disturbance regime, and its carbon sequestration/emission status. I’ll summarise some of the main findings below:

borealfire

© NASA

  • Russia contains ~53 % of the boreal forest, followed by Canada (25 %), USA (18 %, mostly in Alaska), Sweden (2 %) and Finland and Norway (~1 % each); there are small areas of boreal forest in northern China and Mongolia.
  • Fire is the main driver of change in the boreal forest. Although clearing for logging and mining abounds, it pales in comparison to the massive driver that is fire.
  • There is evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and possibly extent of fires in the boreal zone. That said, most fires are started by humans, and this is particularly the case in the largest expanse in Russia (in Russia alone, 7.5 and 14.5 million hectares burnt in 2002 and 2003, respectively).
  • While few countries report an overall change in boreal forest extent, the degree of fragmentation and ‘quality’ is declining – only about 40 % of the total forested area is considered ‘intact’ (defined here as areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by things such as roads, and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km).
  • Russian boreal forest is the most degraded and least ‘intact’, and has suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades compared to other boreal countries.
  • Boreal countries have only < 10 % of their forests protected from wood exploitation, except Sweden where it’s about 20 %.
  • There are over 20000 species described in the boreal forest – a number much less than that estimated for tropical forests even of much smaller size.
  • 94 % of the 348 IUCN Red Listed boreal species are considered to be threatened with extinction, but other estimates from local assessments compiled together in 2000 (the United Nations’ Temperate and Boreal Forest Resources Assessment) place the percentages of threatened species up to 46 % for some taxa in some countries (e.g., mosses in Sweden). The latter assessment placed the Fennoscandian countries as having the highest proportions of at-risk taxa (ferns, mosses, lichens, vascular plants, butterflies, birds, mammals and ‘other vertebrates’), with Sweden having the highest proportion in almost all categories.
  • Boreal forest ecosystems contain about 30 % of the terrestrial carbon stored on Earth (~ 550 Gigatonnes).
  • © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

    Warmer temperatures have predisposed coniferous forest in western Canada to a severe outbreak of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) extending over > 13 M ha. © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

  • Mass insect outbreaks killing millions of trees across the entire boreal region are on the rise.
  • Although considered in the past as a global carbon sink, recent disturbances (e.g., increasing fire and insect outbreak) and refinements of measurement mean that much of the area is probably a carbon source (at least, temporarily).
  • A single insect outbreak in western Canada earlier this decade thought to be the direct result of a warming planet contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than all of that country’s transport industry and fire-caused release combined.
  • Current timber harvest management is inadequately prepared to emulate natural fire regimes and account for shifting fire patterns with climate change.
  • No amount of timber management can offset the damage done by increasing fire – we must manage fire better to have any chance of saving the boreal forest as a carbon sink and biodiversity haven.

Those include the main take-home messages. I invite you to read the paper in full and contact us (the authors) if you have any questions.

CJA Bradshaw

Full reference: Bradshaw, CJA, IG Warkentin, NS Sodhi. 2009. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.019

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