Climate Change Could Cause Whole Marine Ecosystems To Move
September 24, 2012

Climate Change Could Cause Whole Marine Ecosystems To Move

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The effects of climate change have been well documented, driving some creatures and organisms from their homes and even changing landscapes which have been familiar for centuries. Now, some scientists have found yet another impending change in another familiar ecosystem, suggesting that some Pacific ecosystems could move as far as 600 miles away from their current state. What´s more, these changes could take place in less than century.

Published in Nature Climate Change, this analysis examines tracking data from over 4,300 open-ocean animals which has been collected for over a decade. With this data, scientists have been able to predict that shifting temperatures will change the common areas where these animals have always depended on for food and shelter. As with any ecosystem, the smallest change can effect an entire group and, as such, these changes will affect different animals in different ways.

For instance, the team of scientists– composed of 11 American and Canadian researchers– have predicted some of the more elusive and secretive animals are already facing threats due to these climate changes, namely Blue Whales and Loggerhead Turtles.

“They´ll have to travel farther and farther every year just to get to their food,” said lead author Elliot Hazen, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration´s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center, speaking with the Washington Post.

“For species already stressed by overfishing or other human impacts, increased migration time and loss of habitat could be a heavy blow, but if we can build some plausible scenarios of how marine ecosystems may change, this may help efforts to prioritize and proactively manage them," said Hazen.

To judge these changes, the team of North American scientists looked at mathematical data collected over a ten-year span in conjunction with the “Tagging of Pacific Predators” (TOPP) project. In this project, some 4,300 electronic tags were placed on 23 predatory species from the Pacific from 2000 to 2009. This complex data showed the migratory patterns for these creatures, as well as common gathering areas, or “hotspots” for these predatory swimmers.

Then, the scientists gathered temperature data from the same time period, combining the two data sets to predict how the changing climate could affect these creatures.

The team of scientists now predict some of the Pacific´s top predators, such as the aforementioned turtles and whales, as well as sharks and other mammals, could lose as much as 35% of their natural habitat in less than 100 years.

While these predators may have to start traveling farther for their dinner, other sea-creatures may benefit from the shifting ecosystems as a result of climate change.

While the predators may have to move further out to find their food, the food sources for some birds and Tunas could be moving closer to home as their proverbial dinner table is expanded.

“The differences from one species to another is their ability to adapt to temperatures and to use multiple ocean areas,” said Hazen.

“Having multiple sources of food, migration corridors and areas to call home provides a buffer against climate variability and change.”

With these models, Hazen and his team hope to inform the finishing industry as well as marine and coastal managers of upcoming, potential changes.

The research was led by scientists at California's Stanford University.