The biodiversity crisis and its tight link with climate change

Our biodiversity is in decline, and its decline is faster than at any time in human history. This uncomfortable truth comes in parallel with the unprecedented risks of anthropogenic climate change.  The climate and the biodiversity crises are intertwined, and raising awareness about these crises and their connection is a critical step towards action to solve both. While the climate crisis is increasingly reported on in all media, the biodiversity crisis has thus far received far less attention, perhaps because it is yet less visible to the general public.

Biodiversity, defined as the sum of diversity within and between species and ecosystems, is vital for human existence and the good quality of our lives. Its vital role is not always directly visible, yet our entire society is built upon the goods and services provided by the world’s ecosystems: from the food we eat, over the wood in our stoves to the medication that makes our lives longer and healthier. However, while more food, energy and materials than ever before are extracted from nature to maintain our ways of living, we are increasingly exploiting nature’s reserves in an unsustainable way, hence reducing its ability to provide these goods in the future.

This dire state of our biodiversity is the direct effect of unprecedented global changes that have been accelerating during the past 50 years. First and foremost: we have been changing how we use our lands and seas. Switching from undisturbed natural areas to agriculture, building cities, roads and artificial waterways, logging forests and drying up swamps: every one of these actions eats away at available habitat or living area for our biodiversity. On top of that, our direct exploitation of organisms, for food, medicine, fuel or pleasure,  puts already vulnerable species even more at risks. Next, there is the effects of climate change and pollution, which slowly but steadily reduce the suitability of the remaining living areas for many native species. Finally, there is the invasion of alien species. The latter is a select group of species adapted to the above-mentioned pressures, that outcompete native diversity all over the world (think rats wiping out bird species on remote islands by eating their egss). These five main culprits of biodiversity decline in turn result from an array of underlying causes, and are intertwined with other factors like patterns of production and consumption, human population dynamics and global trade.

As mentioned above, climate change negatively impacts biodiversity, and hence, avoiding dangerous climate change is one of the necessary steps to halt biodiversity loss. On the other hand, the biodiversity crisis poses an important hurdle for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss are often associated with CO2 emissions and as biodiversity decreases, also ecosystem resistance and resilience to climatic changes is reduced, among others due to increased sensitivity to pests and pathogens. This interconnection makes that safeguarding biodiversity can also benefit climate action.

People all over the world have been taking the streets to demand climate action. Similarly, global action to stop biodiversity decline is growing. There are the so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that put clear and reachable goals to save what remains of our worlds’ ecosystems: stop deforestation, for example, protect grasslands and wetlands, and work towards more sustainable land management and a halting of natural ecosystem conversion. However, we are still far off our track to reach these goals, and the ever increasing unsustainable production and consumption poses an increasing threat to the environment.

It is possible to build a society that conserves, restores and uses nature sustainably. And what is even better, the necessary transformative change can facilitate reaching other global societal goals as well. Indeed, solutions aimed to protect biodiversity often benefit climate and at the same time improve our own lives as well. Protection and restoration of wetlands, for example, not only helps a diversity of plants and animals, they also store considerable amounts of carbon and can protect our cities against flooding. The road towards success will not be easy; it requires modifications to the way we organize our society, and this will almost inevitably bump into resistance. If obstacles are overcome, however, a joint effort including indigenous people and local communities, investments and innovations from the public and private sectors and inclusive and adaptive governance across all levels can together help to transform society to achieve sustainability.

This transformative action is needed. Urgently.

More information is available at https://ipbes.net, the website of the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and at https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/, which provides the IPCCs special report on climate change and land (published in 2019).

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Tracking biodiversity from the sky

On October 4, 1957, the USSR put into orbit a tiny ball, carrying a radio transmitter, that listened to the name ‘Sputnik’. With that first launch of a satellite, a new era started. An era in which humans could finally admire the earthly magnificence from above, thanks to an increasingly growing number of these satellites orbiting the earth. Nowadays, the information we get from space is increasingly accurate, and the applications are endless.

One of these applications lies in the monitoring of biodiversity and its fate under global change, and that’s what I want to introduce to you today. In short: ecologists like me, we want to know where in the world species are, and why they are there. With that information, we want to predict where the species will be going to if the world changes (which it is rapidly doing nowadays). For this, the wealth of data from above our heads – not only from satellites, but also from airplanes or drones – can make a huge difference.

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Where higher detail is needed than satellites can provide, drones can come in to save the day

How this so-called remotely sensed data can help our ecological models is now neatly documented in a new review in the journal ‘Remote sensing of the environment’. In this review, a group of scientists from both sides of the balance (ecologists and remote sensing specialists) take a look at the available remotely-sensed datasets for use in ecological models. We describe the rapid improvement in accuracy and temporal scope of said data, including those on climate variability, topography, land cover, and changes therein and help solve one of the biggest limitations we were having: we were modelling species’ distributions with very crude proxies of the environmental conditions they are living in, and as such could impossibly predict accurately how they would be changing. Remote sensing is there to fill exactly that gap.

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Remote sensing can provide high resolution maps of complex topography, like here in the Scandinavian mountains

Then, perhaps even more importantly, the review highlights how we can move things forward and improve the match between the world of remote sensing and the biodiversity community. We show for example how ecologists can benefit more from the high resolution data, both in space and time, coming up now. This data can provide information not only about the changes in the environmental factors driving species distributions, but also the distribution of those species themselves.

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Satellite data can be used to track the spread of species, for example based on the difference in colour between them and the environment. Here: invasive pine species spreading uphill in the Andes

With this review, we bring those two – often separate – fields of scientists together, as we strongly believe that together, we can do wonders for our biodiversity. And that is needed, given the current state of crisis our biodiversity is in.

 

Reference

Randin, C. F., Ashcroft, M. B., Bolliger, J., Cavender-Bares, J., Coops, N. C., Dullinger, S., … & Giuliani, G. (2020). Monitoring biodiversity in the Anthropocene using remote sensing in species distribution models. Remote Sensing of Environment239, 111626.

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Looking for remote research sites!

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Current global distribution of SoilTemp loggers

Hey you, do you have a research site in any of the blank spots on this map? Then don’t hesitate and get in touch with us: we offer free microclimate loggers to help us fill those gaps!

SoilTemp is looking for potential collaborators working in remote locations across the globe to expand the global coverage of our growing database of in-situ microclimate measurements. We offer for free 5 to 20 TOMST TMS4 microclimate loggers per location and search for people willing to install the loggers and regularly retrieve the data to feed into the SoilTemp database.

Download this questionnaire for all information and the submission form.

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Check out soiltemp.weebly.com for more information on our database initiative. If you have other microclimate data catching dust on a harddrive, feel free to submit them to our database!

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How are the nights?

Oh, how often comes that question: ‘And… how are the nights?’ Since Zoyla has been born, there has been a spark of interest into our sleeping habits, often accompagnied by worried looks for growing bags under my eyes.

I could simply tell you all ‘it’s going pretty decent, thank you’ and move on. But, wouldn’t it be much better if we would let the numbers do the talking? I thought so!

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Me posing with our study organism

So I dove into the data again, turning life with a baby into some new lines of R-code (of course with the obligatory pink dots and lines; the little princess wouldn’t allow otherwise). The used dataset is all thanks to my lovely wife, who has been tracking eating and sleeping patterns of our baby since almost the very beginning (see also the ‘sleep-pattern’ graph at the end of this post). Using that wealth of data, I could extract for each night the time between the last feeding of the evening and the first feeding of the morning. The result is presented below:

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Time between the two main night feedings (in hours) during the first 4 months of our baby’s life. The line is the result of a Generalized Additive Model.

So what do the numbers say? Well, clearly our sleep is improving! While our brave little girl could not stand more than 4 hours between her feedings at night during the first few weeks (note that the even more intense newborn week 1 and 2 are missing), she rapidly improved her night habits with a peak around 3 months of age. Then, we could often wait 8 (!) hours or more between feedings. That is truly amazing, even considering that these hours start already at around 18h00.

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Then, we rolled in to that dark period of the ‘4 month sleep regression’, with a clear dip in the model at around week 14. The baby-books had warned us for that: at around this age, she would temporarily forget part of the sleeping habits we painstakingly built up. We thus went back from 1 to 2 feedings a night for a while (including the half an hour of holding her straight up for her reflux – luckily we are two to tackle the nights).

But now those dark days seem over again, with the curve soaring upwards. Fingers crossed that slope will keep up that pace as, dear lord, one starts to love a good night’s sleep!

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They grow so quickly, don’t they?

Supplementary graph

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Sleep pattern of our baby in the night since we started tracking when she was about 2 months of age. Green bands are sleep, white bands are awake time, often filled with eating.

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Climate impacts on your doorstep

Extreme weather events are all over the news in recent years, with intense floodings in Asia, fires raging through Australia, and record heatwaves melting the asphalt in Western-Europe. We are all starting to feel the impact of the changing climate in every aspect of our lives.

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Summer droughts are the new normal in western Europe, so we better brace ourselves

In Flanders, increasing summer drought brings the effects of climate change into our homes and gardens, as summer heatwaves dry out the lawns, put restrictions on the water use and endanger the health of the elderly. Yes, indeed: despite the countless cliches about Flanders’ endless rain and grey skies, the region can be counted among the most water-limited and drought-sensitive areas in Europe.

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Summer droughts do not only impact agriculture – here a potato flower in a hot simmering evening sun, our gardens and parks feel the burden as well

While these recent summer droughts highlight the vulnerability of Flanders and its gardens to weather extremes, they also emphasize something else: gardens and parks can play an important yet underappreciated role in the water management during extreme events in Flanders. And, perhaps even more important: they bring the climate issues literally to people’s doorsteps, creating the perfect opportunity for an awareness campaign about climate adaptation and the issues related to intense summer droughts.

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Bringing climate measurements to the network of Flemish gardens to monitor the impacts of summer droughts

And that is exactly what we are setting out to do. Thanks to support from the Flemish government, we are rolling out an ambitious citizen science project that combines sensitization about climate issues with a unique scientific dataset about the impact of weather extremes. To that end, we will establish a network of thousands of ‘garden thermometers’, miniature weather stations that will monitor the temperature and humidity of gardens across the region.

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A mini weather station that monitors temperature and soil moisture for a fraction of the costs we traditionally had to pay, that is what allows us to roll out such an ambitious citizen science project

So, please stay tuned for ‘CurieuzeNeuzen duikt onder’ de ambitious follow-up of the citizen science project that made the Flemish people aware of the air quality in their streets. Now, it is the climate that is in our crosshairs, but together we will take it down: all together towards more climate-resilient gardens for the future.

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Ready for 2020

The 3D lab is ready for the new year to come, and plans are bigger than ever! Let’s take the opportunity of those dark days before January to highlight some of the things we hope to bring to you:

  • First and foremost: our PhD-students are preparing to harvest the benefits from their hard work in the previous year(s). A PhD always starts with searching, learning, building a foundation to work upon. Reading literature, doing fieldwork and learning and doing statistical analysis, it all requires a big investment. For Ronja, Charly and Jan, these things are now going to pay off. They are all currently working on (analyses for) their first first-author papers and, oh boy, does that make me proud!

What is happening in these mountain soils? Our team is hoping to tell you more about it in 2020!

  • 2019 has given us a whole bunch of big announcements regarding our SoilTemp-database. Now I promise, 2020 is when we will finally do what we set out to do: consolidating the global network, spreading its branches further to all parts of the globe, and answering these big global microclimate questions that have been intriguing scientists for so long. We have the plans of freshly started PhD-student Stef with our colleagues in Leuven, and of our collaborations with geomorphometrists (scientists studying the shape of the land), and the machine learning team in Zürich. But most of all, we will benefit from the group effort of several hundred of microclimate enthusiasts to do what scientists do best: work together to tackle global problems.

How do forest understory temperatures differ from the weather station averages? One of the countless SoilTemp-questions for the new year.

  • Our work with the Mountain Invasion Research Network will also bring more good news in the new year. We do not only have the work of Ronja and Jan, and of master students Ilias, Sam, Robin and Nell, but will also work together more with PhD-student Eduardo and the rest of the South American MIREN-team. Then there is more global analyses on the way, for example regarding the mysteries of the belowground world along mountain roads and trails.
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The Chilean part of our MIREN-team, one of the many exciting collaborations planned in the new year!

  • Finally, there is our work in the urban realm. Charly is promising some fantastic discoveries on urban invasions in the new year; we teamed up with a global network on urban invasions, and master student Naomi is joining the Lab to answer questions on the perception of nature in the city. Last but not least, there is some big funding news in the making for our urban projects. What that’s going to be about will have to remain a secret till early next year. 

 

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Where are non-native plant species sprouting most? Charly will be able to tell you in the near future!

So, that are our major story lines in the new year. We hope to keep The 3D Lab growing, keep learning from each other, keep doin great science and, most importantly of all, solve important scientific questions that will help us to keep our eyes on the price: saving our natural world from the dramatic changes our world is experiencing.

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Strengthening SoilTemp

Our SoilTemp-network got pretty lucky the week for Christmas: the project we applied for with the Research Foundation Flanders got funded, ensuring that our database iniative can gear up even more!

Although it was a relatively small grant that covers research equipment only, it comes in addition to earlier realized travel money and just at the right time to further consolidate our growing network.

The new funds allows us to expand our research in 3 critical directions. First of all, we’ll reinforce the established logger network we have in the north of Scandinavia. There, in the beautiful Scandes mountain range in Norway and Sweden and the flatlands of northern Finland, a whole range of SoilTemp-collaborators have been maintaining soil temperature loggers for years.

 

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Expanding our SoilTemp logger network in the northern Scandes will help us understand the effect of the complex topography in the region 

Thanks to these longterm achievements, the area already forms the biggest stronghold of our network, yet expanding it even more with the newly received loggers will ensure that we can use the northern Scandes to answer the most detailed and high-resolution microclimate questions.

What is more, we can now finally realize a longstanding dream: we can fly a drone over our precious mountains to look at them from above. This will provide crucial high-resolution data on the impact of mountain disturbances – like trails – on the mountain vegetation and its microclimate.

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Flying a drone with thermal camera, here at a workshop in France

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will make sure SoilTemp will conquer the world even more: we will install microclimate loggers in some of the most remote places of the world to fill the emptiest spots on our worldmap. For those interested in helping us with the latter achievement, keep an eye out for a formal call early in the new year!

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SoilTemp wants to get a foothold in more of the most remote places on earth. Here, the Andes in southern Chile

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