Climate change and marine biology: questioning our understanding

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Copyright © Joachim S. Müller, Creative Commons
Copyright © Joachim S. Müller, Creative Commons

At some point or another, you’ve probably read or heard the common headline:

“Climate change threatens ____________ (insert your favorite species).”

But once you’ve digested the doom-and-gloom story, have you ever wondered how we know how climate change impacts various marine species? What is it that scientists do that leads to such claims? Are these claims legitimate? How accurate are they?

When assessing the impacts of climate change on living organisms, most studies employ controlled experiments, where researchers can tinker with one or a number of relevant variables to mimic predicted future conditions and observe how organisms respond to these conditions. There are substantial problems with this approach, however. First, biological responses are typically assessed in the context of only one or two environmental stressors, while we know that a multitude of factors (e.g., temperature, acidification, eutrophication, hypoxia, salinity, etc.) will have independent and/or synergistic biological impacts. Second, over the duration of such experiments, conditions are often kept constant, mimicking average future conditions. Finally, studies typically assess species in isolation, which doesn’t adequately address the community and/or ecosystem consequences of climate change, nor how individual species will respond when residing in their natural habitats. Consequently, I argue that the biological effects of a changing climate are, at present, poorly understood.

Table 1. Summary of studies assessing the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification in the context of co-occurring environmental parameters expected to occur under future climate change scenarios.
Table 1. Summary of studies assessing the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification in the context of co-occurring environmental parameters expected to occur under future climate change scenarios.

The ways in which organisms respond to a given environmental stressor do not solely depend on that single stressor. The interactive effects of multiple environmental stressors can elicit drastically different biological responses. For example, it is increasingly recognized that food availability can modulate the magnitude of effect when assessing the biological impacts of climate change in the ocean, suggesting that, at least physiologically, many species can tolerate a warming and acidifying ocean as long as they have enough energy to do so. In a recent literature review of the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification (Clements & Hunt, in review), we found that 7/8 publications incorporating the independent and synergistic effects multiple environmental stressors (Table 1) in experiments derived different conclusions than when acidification was tested in isolation. Furthermore, the outcomes were all over the board, with additional stressors attenuating, amplifying, or not affecting the behavioural endpoint in question. The problem is that only 8/57 studies actually addressed the effects of multiple environmental stressors – a problem that transfers other biological responses to climate change as well.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that nature is far from stable. Growing up in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, I know that a look out the window from one moment to the next can yield drastically different weather observations. While the term “weather” applies to environmental phenomena over small temporal scales (hours, day, weeks, months, etc.), “climate” refers to the average of those weather conditions over long periods of time (years, decades, centuries, millennia, etc.). Since climate is a function of weather, understanding the impacts of climate change requires incorporating an understanding of the weather that derives the climate. The variability (i.e., the weather) around projected climatic means can modulate the amount of time that an organism experiences environmental conditions above or below a threshold whereby the organism is affected (Figure 1). Unfortunately, few studies take variability into consideration. In the same literature review mentioned above (Clements & Hunt, in review), only 1/57 studies took variability into consideration, reporting a negative effect of acidification + variability, while acidification alone elicited no effect.  Furthermore, studies incorporating multiple environmental stressors and their associated variability are virtually non-existent. Ultimately, a strong understanding of how climate change influences biology requires embracing variability, not dismissing it – otherwise our understanding remains flawed.

Figure 1. Potential degrees of current and projected variability in diurnal oceanic pCO2 where variability increases over time (A) and where variability remains consistent over time (B). Distance between dashed lines indicate the relative amount of time organisms would be expected to spend above thresholds where they would be impacted by ocean acidification. Patterns of variability across ecosystems will differ as a result of differing types and magnitudes of various processes across systems.
Figure 1. Potential degrees of current and projected variability in diurnal oceanic pCO2 where variability increases over time (A), where variability remains consistent over time (B), and where variability decreases over time (C). Distance between vertical dashed lines indicate the relative amount of time organisms would be expected to spend above thresholds where they would be impacted by ocean acidification. Patterns of variability across ecosystems will differ as a result of differing types and magnitudes of various processes across systems.

Species interactions can also elicit different responses to climate change. For example, the presence of marine plants and their density/abundance within a given marine system can, to an extent, buffer oceanic pH and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification to other organisms residing within that system. As such, understanding the impacts of climate change in terms of community- and ecosystem-wide consequences not only provides a broader understanding of the biological and ecological impacts of climate change, but can provide a more accurate understanding of how individual organisms will be impacted by shifting environmental conditions within their natural habitats.

So does this all mean that we shouldn’t worry about climate change? – ABSOLUTELY NOT! Climate change is currently, and will continue to be a huge problem for humans and a plethora of other organisms. However, I do think that the degree to which climate change will be a biological problem is poorly understood. On the bright side, scientists are beginning to recognize these shortcomings and are now working toward a better understanding of how climate change will affect marine organisms. Furthermore, not all studies simply employ highly controlled laboratory experiments; there is field evidence that provides sound information regarding the biological effects of climate change for some species. Ultimately, stamp collecting gets us nowhere – experimental approaches need to incorporate multiple shifting stressors and their associated variability, as well as numerous species (optimally mimicking communities or ecosystems) in order to adequately understand the biological implications of a changing climate. Until then, we will likely remain naive about the ways in which climate change will impact marine species.

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