As our planet warms, certain plants and animals will no longer be able to live in their accustomed locations. By tracking a half-century's worth of data, scientists from CSIRO have determined where these species will need to go to find new homes.
The new research, which was just published in Nature, shows how fast and in which direction local temperatures have shifted over the past 50 years. The researchers are hoping to create a simpler way of looking at climate changes and their likely effects on biodiversity.
"Our changing climate is creating new thermal environments in some areas and in others existing environments may disappear," write the CSIRO researchers in a blog post. "Over the past few decades numerous fish and invertebrate species living in the southern hemisphere have already shifted their geographic distribution towards cooler regions. On land, species have started to seek relief from warmer conditions by moving closer to the coast, to higher elevations, to shaded hill aspects or further from the equator."
The research was primarily focused on the Australian situation. The new maps show where species are moving to find their optimal temperature. At the same time, other species are faced with potential extinction if they're unable to move. Geographic features such as coastlines and mountain ranges can act as barriers, or magnets, in influencing migration patterns.
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Species migration can have important consequences for local biodiversity. For example, warming waters and a strengthening of the East Australian Current have mobilised the Long-spined Sea Urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii), previously only found as far south as southern NSW, to invade the eastern Tasmania coast. This has resulted in the decline of giant kelp forests with knock-on effects for commercially-fished rock lobsters.
What's more, along the east coast of Australia the direction of the climate pathways coincides with the direction of flow of the East Australian Current, therefore increasing the potential for dispersal of climate migrants. It is not surprising that some of the first evidence of climate change affecting marine species' distributions in Australia has come from south-east waters, with range shifts observed in around 30% of coastal fish species.