Monitoring effects of anthropogenic climate change on ecosystems: A role for systematic ecological observation?

18 October 2010

We consider here the opportunities and challenges for South Africa in long-termecological research (LTER) to detect the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on biota (as one of several competing objectives of long-term monitoring). The LTER approach has high potential for this purpose in SouthAfrica because of a wealth of historical climate data relative to much of the African continent, and good representation of many African ecosystem types. However, there are substantial challenges to the identification and attribution of climate change impacts on African ecosystems. These are posed by climate variability at a range of time scales, the importance of rainfall rather than temperature as an ecological driver, and the significance of fire as a stochastic disturbance. An awareness of environmental and climate history will be crucial to interpreting data on trends, and sites with established historical data should be preferred for this reason. The placement of LTER sites to provide representivity of ecosystem types may unintentionally limit the detectability of climate change impacts, because change might best be detected in ecotonal or azonal environments. This could be overcome by additional experimental manipulations at LTER sites to ‘force’ anticipated changes and characterize species and ecosystem responses.Afocus on the detection of climate change would sharpen an LTER programme’s emphasis over time and provide policy advice, and science training rationales for the long term. It should especially interpret key information to decision-makers as a priority.