Nature Has Adapted to Current Climate. Adapting to Climate Change Will Be Tough

Adapting to a changing planet isn’t easy for plants and wildlife. And it won’t happen overnight — even if it’s necessary.

While much research on nature’s calendar has so far focused on events occurring in the spring, the massive data set compiled by researchers across the former Soviet Union include events from all parts of the year – such as the timing of autumn coloration in trees. (Credit: Svetlana Bondarchuk)

(CN) — Flowers bloom when the weather warms up because they know that bees are bound to arrive to take their pollen and birds forage for food when the snow melts because they understand that’s when they will find the most success to feed their chicks.

Missing those important cues is a matter of life or death, because in nature timing is everything.

The first porcini mushroom to bloom and the last leaves to fall from a birch tree all follow a clockwork schedule that moves with the environment, but how does that rigid schedule unfold on a warming planet, where seasonal events are thrown out of whack, and the abrupt shifts from climate change drown out the subtle cues that all of life follows?

That gargantuan question is on the minds of a group of researchers in their findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They compiled observational data from over 450 monitoring sites across the former Soviet Union.

The data spanned long stretches of time and came from nature reserves that researchers viewed as a “treasure trove” of long-term observations that were meticulously gathered by scientists and made available by the former Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute and the Russian hunters’ organization.

In essence, the data from multiple sites provides a clear pattern to how wildlife responds to the arrival of spring and autumn over decades on a warming planet.

The scientists learned that an early spring means a longer delay from organisms that typically respond to the rise in temperature.

“What we saw was a general rigidity in species’ response to year-to-year variation in climate, i.e. the earlier the year, the more did the timing of the phenological event lag behind the timing of the cue from temperatures,” said study lead author Maria Delgado from the Oviedo University in Spain in a statement.

Those cues are like blaring klaxons to wildlife. Researchers observed how quickly warmth accumulates in what they called “warming sums” and “chilling sums” in the spring and autumn.

A budding flower will take notice of a warm day that may signal the end of autumn, but they instinctively know that if they bloom prematurely, they might find themselves back in winter due to a false start to spring. The flowers understand to wait for several days of warm before they finally open.

Bird migration, flower blooms and even breeding all are impacted by a change in the climate.

In an email, leader author Tomas Roslin, who coordinates research teams at both the University of Helsinki and at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, said the study drives home a difference between the same sites over a long span of time.

The effects of local adaption observed in the study were opposite when it comes to spring and autumn, meaning as time went on organisms reacted differently to spring as the temperature warmed up.

Observing this type of response for the entire year shows that changes are not limited just to spring.

Now, adapting to a changing planet will not happen overnight for any lifeforms that are suddenly thrust into an early spring or a late autumn — hence the delay in reactions observed.

“What I think the average reader should take away from this study is that evolution is not a glacially slow process but something shaping things right here and now,” Roslin said in the email. “If species have evolved to current conditions, well then if conditions change they will have to evolve again. How quickly that happens will affect how they can adapt to climate change. Evolution is happening here and now — and needed here and now — not just over eons or millennia.”

The reaction to the changes of different sites heightened those natural responses in the spring and dampened them in the autumn.

That could mean an abrupt change for trees, animals and whole ecosystems.

Biologists were able to turn to data recorded across the former Soviet Union, including some observational data from the last century on protected areas.

That data was analyzed by a team of international researchers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan according to Evgeni Meyke and Otso Ovaskainen from the University of Helsinki.

The data compiled in the study is archived in “The Chronicles of Nature” program that includes data on nature, geography, species and events across large spans of land. The study includes data collected by researchers during their entire lives, including six study authors who are now dead. The published study is an homage to their work.

Much of that data remained obscured from the rest of the world as their research may have been overlooked in their home countries.

“Sadly, in most of the participating countries, protected areas and their staff are currently facing tough challenges,” Ovaskainen said in a statement. “We hope that our findings will summon the interest of the international community, and focus attention on the global importance of these areas and the irreplaceable scientific work done by their staff. Should these time series break, there is no way to re-forge them.”

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