Changes in climate have affected the world, and the distribution and abundance of its plants and animals, throughout time. However, during the 20th century, the rate of warming increased dramatically (significantly exceeding any natural variations in climate over the last 1000 years). This coincided with industrial and social development increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and accelerating what is essentially a natural process. ‘Global warming’ is being accompanied by changing precipitation patterns and increased frequencies of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and storms. Sea levels are also rising as ice sheets and glaciers melt, and as sea water expands in response to higher temperatures.
This trend is set to continue for at least the first half of the 21st century, even if a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases is achieved. It is expected that average global temperatures will rise by between 1.4 and 5.8°C by 2100, depending on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change presents a series of important and immediate challenges to nature conservation. There is already clear evidence to show that plants and animals, including those characteristic of the England’s countryside and seas, are being affected by climate change. This includes changes in populations, ranges, migration patterns, and seasonal and reproductive behaviour of certain species. Such effects will become more apparent and extensive as climate continues to change, with local species extinctions and habitat-loss becoming increasingly probable.
A programme of scientific research is developing ‘tools’ to make predictions about the responses of species and their habitats under possible future climates. Projects concerned both with terrestrial and marine environments are underway:
- MONARCH – Modelling Natural Resource Responses to Climate Change (multi-partner project, with research led by the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford)
- MarClim – Marine Biodiversity and Climate Change (multi-partner project, with research led by the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth)
- The role of nature conservation in mitigating the effects of climate change (PhD studentship with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)
Outputs from these projects are providing the scientific basis for a complementary policy programme. This is raising awareness of climate change, and formulating advice and guidance on adapting nature conservation policies and management practices to its impacts.