Climate explained: humans have dealt with plenty of climate variability

23 09 2020
© Professor John Long, Flinders University, Author provided

(originally published on The Conversation)


How much climate variability have humans dealt with since we evolved and since we started settling (Neolithic times)? How important was migration to human survival during these periods?


The climate always fluctuates as variation in the Sun’s heat reaching Earth drives glacial-interglacial cycles. Over the past 420,000 years there have been at least four major transitions between ice ages and relatively warmer interglacial periods.

Modern humans emigrated from Africa to populate the rest of the globe between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago, which means our species has had to adapt to many massive climate transitions.


Warming and cooling

The Last Interglacial 129,000–116,000 years ago was a period of intense global warming (from around 2 ℃ higher than today to as much as 11 ℃ higher in the Arctic), leading to a large reduction of the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and a 6–9 m rise in sea level.

The front of a glacier breaking away and falling into the sea.
Arctic glaciers have melted before. Flickr/Kimberly Vardeman, CC BY

The Last Glacial Maximum from 26,500–19,000 years ago coincided with a large drop in atmospheric CO₂ and a 4.3 ℃ cooling globally.

Read more: Climate explained: will the tropics eventually become uninhabitable?


Low temperatures turned much of the world’s water into ice and expanded glaciers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXII

2 09 2020

The fifth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Many animals won’t cope with climate change without access to ample drinking water

12 08 2020

Climate change implies change in temperature and water, and both factors shape species’ tolerances to thermal stress. In our latest article, we show that lack of drinking water maximises differences in tolerance to high temperatures among populations of Iberian lizard species.


Climate change is a multidimensional phenomenon comprising temporal and spatial shifts in both temperature and precipitation (1). How we perceive climate change depends on whether we measure it as shift in (i) mean conditions (e.g., the mean air temperature or rainfall over a decade within a given territory), (ii) magnitude or frequency of extreme conditions (e.g., the frequency of floods or tornados or the number of days with temperatures or rainfall above or below a given threshold), or (iii) speed at which mean or extreme conditions change in space and/or time.

In aquatic ecosystems, climate change further alters water acidity, oxygen dissolution and melting of ice. However, many people, including some scientists, tend to equate climate change erroneously with increased mean temperatures. Psychologists have made the semantic point that the use of the expressions climate change and global warming as synonyms can give mixed messages to politicians, and society in general, about how serious and complex the climate emergency we are facing really is (2, 3) — see NASA’s simple-worded account on the subject here.

In our latest article (4), we reviewed the ecological literature to determine to what extent ecologists investigating the tolerance of terrestrial animals to high temperatures have looked at thermal effects over water effects. It turns out, they were five times more likely to examine temperature over water.


Frequency of correlations between climate (air temperature versus precipitation) and tolerance to high temperature of terrestrial fauna in 64 papers published in the ecological literature (thickest link = 36, thinnest link = 2) following a systematic literature review in Scopus (4).

This is counterintuitive. Just imagine you have been walking under the sun for several hours on one of those dog days of summer, and you are offered to choose between a sunshade or a bottle of water. I’d bet you’d choose the bottle of water.

Read the rest of this entry »

Double standards: climate change vs. COVID-19

3 08 2020

Both anthropogenic climate change and the coronavirus pandemic entail serious health risks. Why then do climatologists lack the public credibility and political repercussions that doctors have? Preventing the aggravation of the climate emergency is possible if we react to it in the same way we are reacting to the pandemic, essentially, following the advice of the scientific community.


We have as much uncertainty regarding the coronavirus COVID-19 that causes acute respiratory failure (SARS-CoV-2) as we do about human-made greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Both problems are currently costing (and will cost) trillions to national economies. But the main difference between the two when it comes to public perception is not economic but temporal. The virus has changed our lives in days to months whereas climate change is taking years to decades to do so. This short-termism about how we respond to the pace of an emergency has been sculped in our genes by evolution (1) and contaminates politics.

Early this year, after deriding the onset of the pandemic, many climate change-denialist leaders (the obvious picks are Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson [note that Johnson modified his public views on climate change when becoming UK foreign secretary in 2016]) had to swallow their own words and honour their political profession when human corpses started to pile up in their hospitals. Read the rest of this entry »

The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.


As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

Read the rest of this entry »

Successful movers responding to climate change

16 06 2020

tropical fishes range shiftsEcologists often rely on measuring certain elements of a species’ characteristics, behaviour, or morphology to determine if these — what we call ‘traits’ — give them certain capacities to exploit their natural environments. While sometimes a bit arbitrarily defined, the traits that can be measured are many indeed, and sometimes they reveal rather interesting elements of a species’ resilience in the face of environmental change.

As we know, climate change is changing the way species are distributed around the planet, for the main (and highly simplified) reason that the environments in which they’ve evolved and to which they have adapted are changing.

In the simplest case, a warming climate means that there is a higher and higher chance you’ll experience temperatures that really don’t suit you that well (think of a koala or a flying fox baking in a tree when the thermometer reads +45° in the shade). Just like you seeking those nice, air-conditioned spaces on a scorcher of a day, species like to move to where conditions are more acceptable to their particular physiologies and behaviours.

When they can’t change fast enough, they go extinct.

Ecologists use life-history traits to predict which species have the highest probability of moving to new areas in response to climate change. Most studies into this phenomenon have largely ignored that range shifts in fact occur in sequential stages: (1) the species arrives in a new place for the first time, (2) its population increases in size (and extent), and (3) it can continue to persist in the new spot. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXI

31 05 2020

The fourth set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Never let a good crisis go to waste

11 05 2020


First published in the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere Blog on 5 May 2020.

by Professor Dan Blumstein (University of California at Los Angeles), Professor Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), and Corey Bradshaw (Flinders University)

Winston Churchill’s words have never been more important than today as we experience the society- and life-changing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The extent and severity of the disease is a result of ignoring decades of warnings by scientists about the general deterioration of humanity’s epidemiological environment, and specific warnings about confining live, wild animals in markets. The situation was made even more lethal by ignoring the warnings from epidemiologists and disease ecologists once it became clear that an imminent pandemic most likely arose from this practice. Many countries, including the United States, are still ignoring those warnings and the required actions to lessen the impact.

Accordingly, we should ask ourselves, “what else are we missing?” What other huge problems are hiding in plain sight where science could guide policy to avoid catastrophic future failures? For instance, there are two principal health threats that must be addressed immediately, and we must strike while the iron is hot.

The overuse of antibiotics in agriculture will cause widespread deaths from formerly treatable bacterial diseases because of the evolution of antibiotic resistance in microbes. The evolution of resistance is well-known, predictable, and obvious — not in retrospect, but now. By feeding antibiotics to otherwise healthy livestock, animals can be housed in higher densities and they grow faster. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LX

8 04 2020

The third set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020 (plus a video treat). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIX

24 02 2020

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Heat tolerance highly variable among populations and species

14 01 2020

Many ecological studies have examined the tolerance of terrestrial wildlife to high and low air temperatures over global scales (e.g., 1, 2, 3). This topic has been boosted in the last two decades by ongoing and predicted impacts of climate change on biodiversity (see summary of 2019 United Nation’s report here and here).

However, it is unfortunate that for most species, studies have measured thermal tolerance from a single location or population. Researchers interested in global patterns of thermal stress collect those measurements from the literature for hundreds to thousands of species [recently compiled in the GlobTherm database] (4), and are therefore often restricted to analysing one value of thermal tolerance per species.


Three of the 15 species of Iberian lacertids sampled in our study of thermal tolerance (9), including the populations of Algerian psammodromus (Psammodromus algirus), Geniez’s wall lizard (Podarcis virescens) and Western green lizard (Lacerta bilineata) sampled in Navacerrada (Madrid), Fuertescusa (Cuenca) and Moncayo (Soria), respectively. Photos by S. Herrando-Pérez

Using this approach, ecologists have concluded that cold tolerance is far more variable than heat tolerance across species from the tropics to the boreal zone (5-8). Consequently, tolerance to heat stress might be a species trait with limited potential to change in response to global warming compared to cold tolerance (5). Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVIII

4 01 2020

The first set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. This special, Australia-is-burning-down-themed set is dedicated to Scott Morrison and his ilk. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2019

24 12 2019

Bradshaw-Waves breaking on rocks Macquarie Island
As I’ve done for the last six years, I am publishing a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of 2109 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime (in no particular order). See previous years’ lists here: 20182017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.







Read the rest of this entry »

Did people or climate kill off the megafauna? Actually, it was both

10 12 2019

When freshwater dried up, so did many megafauna species.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Author provided

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Earth is now firmly in the grips of its sixth “mass extinction event”, and it’s mainly our fault. But the modern era is definitely not the first time humans have been implicated in the extinction of a wide range of species.

In fact, starting about 60,000 years ago, many of the world’s largest animals disappeared forever. These “megafauna” were first lost in Sahul, the supercontinent formed by Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level.

The causes of these extinctions have been debated for decades. Possible culprits include climate change, hunting or habitat modification by the ancestors of Aboriginal people, or a combination of the two.

Read more: What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

The main way to investigate this question is to build timelines of major events: when species went extinct, when people arrived, and when the climate changed. This approach relies on using dated fossils from extinct species to estimate when they went extinct, and archaeological evidence to determine when people arrived.

Read more: An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose

Comparing these timelines allows us to deduce the likely windows of coexistence between megafauna and people.

We can also compare this window of coexistence to long-term models of climate variation, to see whether the extinctions coincided with or shortly followed abrupt climate shifts.

Data drought

One problem with this approach is the scarcity of reliable data due to the extreme rarity of a dead animal being fossilised, and the low probability of archaeological evidence being preserved in Australia’s harsh conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

Adult disguises

2 12 2019

Skilled ornithologists can tell the age of a bird by the look of its feathers. But many species are advancing the moult of their first adult plumage in response to global warming, and the youngsters look more similar to the adults now than two centuries ago.

R Graphics Output

The clothes don’t make the (wo)man, but how we dress sends out a lot of information about our tastes, emotional state, or financial situation. In nature, where species have evolved to exploit all kinds of physical and chemical cues, visual communication determines a wealth of feeding and reproductive strategies (1).

Birds are familiar to all of us by the beauty and variety of their plumages (see extreme examples commented by David Attenborough here, here and here), which bird fans use to tell juveniles from males, males from females and breeders from migrants. In evolutionary time, birds have gradually moved away from tree-bark browns and tree-leaf greens and, due to functional requirements, modern feathers only span about one third of the colours these animals can perceive (2). They obtain yellows, oranges, and reds from carotenoid-containing food, dark colours from melanin pigment of own synthesis, and the so-called structural colours depend on how light reflects on the barbs of the feathers (2).

Plumage, across its entire range of designs, is a factor crucial to the life history of our feathery friends and, consequently, to evaluate how and how much anthropogenic climate change is impacting them (3).

Plumage and temperature

We know that mammals and birds are modifying their fur and feathers to optimise camouflage against landscapes with more or less snow (4), but less-known are the implications of climate change for feather moulting. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change and humans together pushed Australia’s biggest beasts to extinction

25 11 2019

people-megafaunaOver the last 60,000 years, many of the world’s largest species disappeared forever. Some of the largest that we generally call ‘megafauna’ were first lost in Sahul — the super-continent formed by the connection of Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level. The causes of these extinctions have been heavily debated for decades within the scientific community.

Three potential drivers of these extinctions have been suggested. The first is climate change that assumes an increase in arid conditions that eventually became lethal to megafauna. The second proposed mechanism is that the early ancestors of Aboriginal people who either hunted megafauna species to extinction, or modified ecosystems to put the largest species at a disadvantage. The third and most nuanced proposed driver of extinction is the combination of the first two.

The primary scientific tools we scientists use to determine which of these proposed causes of extinction have the most support are dated fossil records from the extinct species themselves, as well as archaeological evidence from early Aboriginal people. Traditionally, the main way we use these data is to construct a timeline of when the last fossil of a species was preserved, and compare this to evidence indicating when people arrived. We can also reconstruct climate patterns back tens of thousands of years using models similar to the ones used today to predict future climates. Based on the comparison of all of these different timelines, we conclude that abrupt climate changes in the past were influential if they occurred at or immediately before a recorded extinction event. On the other hand, if megafauna extinctions occur immediately after humans are thought to have arrived, we attribute more weight to human arrival as a driver.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVII

6 11 2019

The sixth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

The politics of environmental destruction

22 10 2019

C_SE 409521698 Paul Ehrlich Lecture Event - Eventbrite2

You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist.

My good friend and colleague, the legendary Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, as well as his equally legendary wife, Anne, will be joining us in Adelaide for a brief visit during their annual southern migration.

Apart from just catching up over a few good bottles of wine (oh, do those two enjoy fine wines!), we have the immense privilege of having Paul appear at two events while he’s in town.

I’m really only going to be talking about the second of the two events (the first is a Science Meets Parliament gig with me and many others at the South Australia Parliament on 12 November): a grand, public lecture and Q&A session held at Flinders University on Wednesday, 13 November.

Haven’t heard of Paul? Where have you been hiding? If by some miracle you haven’t, here’s a brief bio:

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University and Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney. He does research in population biology (includes ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioral ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of cultural evolution, especially the evolution of norms. He is President of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and is author and coauthor of more than 1100 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 40 books. He is best known to his efforts to alert the public to the many intertwined drivers that are pushing humanity toward a collapse of civilization – especially overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and lack of economic, racial, and gender equity. Ehrlich is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Entomological Society and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  Among his many other honours are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize;  the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America, the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Prof Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on more than 1000 TV and radio programs; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. He has given many hundreds of public lectures in the past 50 years.

I hope your jaw just dropped.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVI

4 09 2019

The fifth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »