Although researchers have long realized that climate change will impact biodiversity, they have previously lacked either comprehensive data on where species live for an area as large as Mexico, or software tools powerful enough to analyze the relationships between species and climate over such a large area.
"This research marks a major step forward in being able to investigate in a quantitative way the initial impacts of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity," said Peterson. "This is important because the modifications affecting our climate are like a big experiment the whole world is doing without knowing what's going to happen." This innovative modeling research is providing scientific insight into climate impacts on biodiversity that can eventually give crucial guidance to policymakers in establishing effective species conservation and management plans.
"What's unique about what we've done is that for the first time we were able to look at a whole community in detail," said Peterson. Previous research has looked in a broad brush way at how climate change would affect an ecosystem. For example, if a warmer climate will cause a given habitat to move northward or uphill to higher altitude, researchers made the assumption that the various species would simply move along with the ecosystem. Other detailed studies have been limited to looking at only a few species.
In contrast, the Nature article outlines research that not only looks at a great many species across a whole community but also examines them one-by-one, using realistic assumptions about their ability to change where they live in response to climate change. "That species-by-species look has allowed us to appreciate just how big the differences are in the way each species can respond to climate change -- it's quite complex and individual," said Peterson.