GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Use Earth System Models to study the impact of climate change on ecosystems

Climate variability and change can impact ecosystems and the animals and plants within them in many ways. Warming of the ocean and atmosphere, for example, directly influences rates of growth, feeding, and respiration. Potential changes in the timing of seasonal transitions may effect food availability and newborn survival for animals whose reproductive cycles are synced to current seasonal patterns. Declining sea-ice could endanger animals inhabiting polar and sub-polar regions whose life-cycles are critically dependent on sea-ice habitat (see inset). The influence of climate on ecosystems can extend to the base of marine and terrestrial food-webs. In the ocean, for example, climate-driven changes in seawater density near the ocean surface (ocean stratification) can cause global-scale changes in the productivity of phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that provide the energy for extensive fisheries resources and other marine life.

The overall impact of climate on ecosystems arises from this myriad of interconnected individual effects. Understanding and predicting climate impacts on ecosystems thus requires tools that resolve both individual climate effects and their interactions. Earth System Models developed at GFDL provide one such tool and are presently being used to study climate change impacts ranging from shifts in ocean and terrestrial productivity, the effect of ocean acidification on coral reefs, and the effect of climate-driven changes in precipitation and temperature on other endangered species. The climate and ecosystem group is also working to provide information from the global-scale ESM’s and physical climate models developed at GFDL to comprehensive regional ecosystem assessments. These activities will help determine the extent of climate-driven changes in ecosystems and how detrimental they may be to the valuable services that ecosystems provide to our society.

Figure: Iconic picture of a polar bear and melting sea ice