Whole ecosystems are shifting dramatically north in the Great Plains, a phenomenon likely linked to human influences such as climate change, says new University of Nebraska-Lincoln research that analyzed nearly 50 years’ worth of data on bird distributions.
The northernmost ecosystem boundary shifted more than 365 miles north, with the southernmost boundary moving about 160 miles from the 1970 baseline.
The findings could inform the development of an early-warning system that would give land managers decades to prepare for ecosystem shift or collapse, allowing them to accommodate or foster the change rather than simply reacting, the researchers said.
Early warning, long the siren song for extreme weather events such as tornadoes, is likewise an emerging goal in ecology. Ecologists long thought that ecosystems respond to external pressures — climate changes, invasive species — in idiosyncratic, largely unpredictable ways.
But the team’s new study, published June 24 in the journal Nature Climate Change, managed to quantify the spatial component of that change for the first time. In doing so, it suggests that ecological responses are much more ordered and predictable than previously thought.
“If we can work toward prevention (of changes), we’re going to save ourselves so much money and time,” said Caleb Roberts, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Nebraska. “We won’t have to worry about specific endangered species, perhaps, because we will be protecting the system they require.”