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Assessing the exposure of UK habitats to 20th- and 21st-century climate change, and its representation in ecological monitoring schemes – The Applied Ecologist

EcologyAssessing the exposure of UK habitats to 20th- and 21st-century climate change, and its representation in ecological monitoring schemes – The Applied Ecologist


Shortlisted for the 2023 Southwood Prize


Oliver Wilson explains how he, along with co-author Oliver Prescott, generated a metric of climate change exposure by quantifying the change in observed historical and predicted future conditions. They then compared patterns of climate change exposure in locations sampled by ecological monitoring schemes to random samples from wider habitats.

Climate change and ecological monitoring

We’re living in a time of crises, two of the biggest of which are human-driven climate change and biodiversity loss. These challenges are closely intertwined, and climate change is a major and growing cause of ecological change. To navigate an uncertain future, we need to understand how species and ecosystems respond to climate change.

Ecological monitoring schemes, where researchers make detailed and repeated surveys of locations over long time periods, are a gold standard for biodiversity data. But this level of data collection takes a lot of time, effort and money, so monitored locations tend to be relatively small and few in number. And, generally speaking, these sites have not been set up with the explicit intention to monitor the effects of climate change, whose effects are not falling uniformly across the landscape.

As a result, monitoring schemes might happen to sample areas experiencing below- or above-average climatic changes, so their records might under- or over-estimate impacts on biodiversity. In addition, if we know that some monitoring sites have experienced more climate change than others, we can use this to shed more light on how resilient ecological communities are. If we want to generalise from these sources of biodiversity data, then, we need to understand the spatial and temporal exposure of monitored sites – and wider habitats – to climate change.

The study

The UK is fortunate to have detailed weather records dating back centuries and several high-quality, well-established ecological monitoring schemes. This makes it an ideal place to investigate how these data streams overlap.

In this study, we used historical climate records and future projections to develop a metric of climate change exposure from 1900 to 2080 – essentially, how much conditions have changed (or are predicted to change) in a grid cell from one multi-decade period to another. We then overlaid this dataset with a land cover map to evaluate how climate exposure varies across habitats. Finally, we calculated the overlap between each habitat’s total climate change exposure and the proportion of that distribution sampled by several ecological monitoring schemes.

Maps showing the spatial distributions of the UK’s climate change exposure (unitless) through time (left) and 2019 land cover (right)  © Wilson and Prescott, 2023

Our findings

The UK’s climate has already changed a lot, with more in store. The UK’s coldest climate types, which were found across many upland areas in the early 20th Century, have shrunk markedly, with changes accelerating through time and even more drastic shifts predicted for the future. In a worst-case emissions scenario, by 2061-2080 those cold upland climate types could almost completely vanish, and much of England could have climatic conditions like those found in Portugal today.

Different habitats have quite different exposures to climate change. Chalk (calcareous) grassland, much of which is found in highly-exposed southern England, is the natural habitat with the highest total exposure across the 20th and 21st Centuries. Urban, suburban, arable and horticultural land also ranked at the top, with similarly widespread broadleaved woodland and improved grassland not far behind.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme training day, Northern Ireland © Oliver Prescott

Our analysis also revealed that the UK’s ecological monitoring schemes cover habitats’ climate change exposure in variable ways. The professional Countryside Survey, overseen by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK CEH), generally came closest to matching habitat-wide gradients. The National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS), a larger citizen science programme coordinated by UKCEH and the charity Plantlife, came a close second. In some habitats, like acid grassland, all four of the monitoring schemes we evaluated had many survey locations with good coverage of climate change exposure. In most, however, the different datasets would give researchers quite contrasting views on ecological responses to climate change.

Impacts and next steps

This work fits into a larger effort to help ecologists address the risk of bias in their data (Boyd et al., 2022). For ecologists working on climate change in the UK, we hope our results provide useful insights into how these valuable ecological datasets can be used to understand our changing biodiversity – and for those working elsewhere, we hope that our methods demonstrate ways of assessing how biodiversity data locations fit wider patterns of climate change.

The datasets we generated – maps of the UK’s 20th– and 21st-Century climate types and climate change exposure – are freely available online and could also be used to assess the climate change exposure of locations from priority habitats and protected areas to veteran trees, ancient woodlands and more. Ultimately, it’s our hope that this research will help us better understand how our changing climate is affecting ecosystems in the UK and around the world.

About the author

The author © Oliver Wilson

I first realised that plants were interesting in a botanic garden in my first week as a biology undergraduate. Over time, I became especially fascinated in the many important roles of plants in human societies. Via a slightly winding route that included a couple of years as a school science teacher, this has led me to a research focus on the intersections between plants, people and climate change in the past, present and future.

My PhD, at the University of Reading, looked at how natural climate change and Indigenous people combined to shape southern Brazil’s iconic Araucaria forests, as well as the challenges 20th-Century deforestation and 21st-Century human-driven climate change will bring. As my PhD funding drew to a close, my research focus moved closer to home as I joined Plantlife as an analyst for the NPMS survey. This study, with my co-author, Oliver Pescott at UK CEH, came out of that work.

I am currently a NERC (UK Natural Environment Research Council) Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of York, working on the 3D Pollen Project. This is an idea I initially developed alongside my PhD, and helps people produce accurate, larger-than-life 3D-printed models of pollen grains as a way of helping communicate related research (such as the palaeoecology in my PhD) with non-expert audiences.

Read the full article “Assessing the exposure of UK habitats to 20th- and 21st-century climate change, and its representation in ecological monitoring schemes” in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Find the other early career researchers and their articles that have been shortlisted for the 2023 Southwood Prize here!

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