Uncertainty surrounding the prediction of microclimate change

We need to gear up the search for correct climate predictions to tackle the biodiversity crisis. In a recent perspective piece in the journal Science, we argue that our climate predictions do not take into account local changes in land use. Tackling this problem will require our new SoilTemp climate database and the joint collaboration of scientists from all over the globe. 

 Artificial temperatures

Weather stations serve well to monitor our daily weather and the changes in our climate. However, such data are much less relevant for nature. What is even worse: the predicted warming of our nature itself could also be very different from what the climate models predict.

The problem is simple: Weather stations measure the temperature at 1.5 to 2 meters above the ground, in well-ventilated rooms, above a neatly mown lawn. However, this is a very artificial situation, resulting in temperatures quite distinct from those that nature itself experience. Most animals and plants (insects, soil organisms, herbs, small mammals…) indeed spend a large part of their lives much closer to the ground, where temperatures can vary from a few to even dozens of degrees from that weather station temperature. You can experience this so-called ‘microclimate’ yourself when you put your hand on the hot beach sand on a summer day, or on a cool bed of moss in the forest.

Picture microclimate stations

Mini weather stations – like here in a lawn – give ecologists the climate where it matters for the ecosystem.

Faster warming

These big differences that we feel on the beach and in the forest over the years accumulate into a long-term climate that is on average several degrees warmer or cooler respectively than what a weather station indicates. We argue this week in Science that these differences are already crucial to understanding nature in the present, but that climate change is making them all the more crucial. A predicted increase in temperature of 2 °C could feel completely different on the forest floor, especially if mankind interferes. For example, another study in the same edition of Science, led by Florian Zellweger, reports that the climate on the forest floor in forests with more intensive logging has warmed up much faster than average in recent decades, with major consequences for the future of forest biodiversity.

Ecologists have been aware of this problem for a while, but no good solution had been found yet. Until now. Researchers from all over the world – we already united scientists from more than 50 countries – are joining forces to finally obtain climate data that can also be used to tackle the biodiversity crisis. We did set up ‘SoilTemp’, a database of climate data that is relevant for nature itself. By using temperature measurements there where it matters, we can gain insight into how strongly that microclimate can deviate from the measurements in the weather station in ecosystems across the globe. In doing so, we hope to answer the ultimate question: how large is the impact of climate change on our biodiversity?

Publications

  1. Lembrechts and I. Nijs, Microclimate change in a dynamic world. Science, (2020).
  2. Zellweger et al., Forest microclimate dynamics drive plant responses to warming. Science, (2020).
  3. Lembrechts et al., SoilTemp: call for data for a global database of near-surface temperatures. Global change biology, (2020).
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