Responses of terrestrial Antarctic ecosystems to climate change
Antarctic terrestrial biota are generally limited by the inexorably linked environmental factors of low summer temperature and lack of available water. However, in parts of the Antarctic, both these factors are changing rapidly on contemporary timescales. Terrestrial biota have concurrently been faced with changes in the timing of UV-B maxima associated with spring ozone depletion. The region of the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Arc has experienced one of the most rapid rates of environmental warming seen worldwide over the last 30–50 years. Together with local changes in precipitation, this has resulted in a rapid reduction in extent and thinning of many ice-fields and glaciers, exposing new terrain for colonisation while, at the same time, altering patterns of water availability in terrestrial habitats. The rapid development of communities on newly-exposed ground is also facilitated by the existence of soil propagule banks, which contain propagules of both local and exotic origin. In this paper we collate and review evidence from a range of observational and manipulative studies that investigate the effect of climate change, especially increased temperature, on the processes of colonisation and subsequent community development by plants in the Antarctic. Biological changes that have been associated with climate change are visible in the form of expansions in range and local population numbers amongst elements of the flora. Environmental manipulation experiments further demonstrate the possibility of large and rapid species and community responses to climate amelioration, with many resident biota responding positively, at least in the absence of increased competition from exotic colonists. Manipulation studies are also starting to elucidate more subtle responses to climate changes, at levels ranging from cell biochemistry to habitat and food web structure. Integrating such subtle responses is vital to improving our ability to understand the consequences of climate change, as these may lead to much greater consequential impacts on communities and ecosystems.
Authors: Convey, P. ORCID record for P. Convey, Smith, R.I.L.