Mapping the future

By Kirtiman Awasthi
Published: Wednesday 15 October 2008

Climate change will see a northward movement in Europe

so far, potential climate change impacts are studied for broad regions, countries for instance. Researchers of Wageningen University in the Netherlands have presented an alternative approach for predicting climate change impacts in Europe. They studied four environmental zones in the continent.

Europe is divided into 84 homogenous regions (sharing common environmental features), which are further classified into 13 broad environmental zones. To study the potential impact of climate change, the researchers selected--southern Sweden (in Nemoral zone), southern Carpathian Mountains (Mediterranean mountain zone), north-western Iberian Peninsula (Lusitanian zone) and south-western England and Wales (part of Atlantic central zone); all with contrasting environmental features. They linked different climate change scenarios to environmental characteristics of these four regions.

The researchers produced maps of the environmental features under baseline conditions and for 2080 under climate change scenario. They mapped changes in mean maximum temperature and mean precipitation. "Such changes are important in interpreting shifting strata and potential environmental impact on ecosystems," says Marc J Metzger, lead author of the paper published in Environmental Conservation (Vol 35, No 1). The most striking observation was a shift of southern environments northwards.

Detailed analysis at the strata level showed that the southern Mediterranean strata (which are drier and warmer) would expand northward indicating a potential expansion of desert habitats and an increased risk of forest fires and drought. The Lusitanian environment would also become drier and shift into northern Mediterranean environment, threatening endemic species and increasing the risk of droughts. The study predicted dramatic decline in Alpine and Mediterranean mountain environments. "Such a shift would have major implications for mountain plant species and ski tourism," the study said.

In northern Europe, Nemoral environments (southern Scandinavia) would shift northward and Boreal environments (lowlands of Scandinavia characterized by Conifer forests) would decrease in extent. This indicated that deciduous trees might be able to grow further north and at higher altitudes. Shifting environmental strata, however, is not bad news for this region because it will be favourable for plant growth, leading to an expanded growing season, higher temperature and higher productivity, and hence more suitable for agriculture.

Atlantic environments are predicted to remain relatively stable though isolated habitats are likely to experience changes. Agricultural productivity may increase under higher temperatures and pests and diseases may expand. According to Metzger, with sea level rise and increased erosion, extended urban settlements, especially in coastal areas would also be affected.

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