Spotlight: Uncertainty, complexity and constraints, but also growing insights into the future of climate and ecosystems

In an era of rapidly changing climate where temperatures are rising and precipitation is varying, forecasting trajectories of ecological changes is critical for land and resource managers to be able to make timely conservation decisions. While it is known that significant transformations of ecosystems will occur, how and when those impacts will occur is still not well understood. Understanding the ways biological responses will change has been challenging for practitioners because of the complexity inherent in biology, climate, and the interactions between the two; the range of possible outcomes due to uncertainties in model predictions; and limitations due to (un)availability of appropriate spatial and temporal datasets. In a recently published open-source paper, Uncertainty, Complexity and Constraints: How do we robustly assess biological responses under a rapidly changing climate?, scientists from the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, University of Colorado Boulder, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservation Science Partners, and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program stress the importance of taking climate change projections into account, even in the face of the aforementioned challenges.

The paper explores two case studies which “highlight successful science-management collaborations and activities that promoted a more robust assessment of biological responses despite challenges”. These case studies use scenario-based climate change impact assessments — a framework coming into increased usage now in conservation projects due to the growing robustness of the technique. The authors acknowledge that assessments should incorporate the uncertainty to determine a range of potential risks ecosystems could experience in the future and develop strategies to prepare for different trajectories of future ecological responses.

Collaboration, sharing of experiences, and building of partnerships, as demonstrated in this paper’s collective efforts of scientists working across multiple institutions, all provide effective ways for evaluation of future climate change impacts on ecosystems and species. This paper notes that quantitative ecological modeling that incorporates constantly improving regional climate projections, along with expert opinions, can be used “to create narrative descriptions of plausible ecological futures.” This combination of quantitative modeling and expert opinions also promotes more robust predictions and gives practitioners the guidance they need to develop management pathways that target a range of plausible climate scenarios. Understanding the impacts of climate change is a continuous learning process – one that must be adapted as scientists fill more knowledge gaps with advances in climate science, as well as ecological modeling and updated datasets and tools. Despite the uncertainties, complexities, and constraints with assessing biological responses due to climate change, scientists and managers can draw on climate and ecological science, data, expertise and field experience to assess likely future conditions and point to best strategies to employ in the present and to maximize decision options for the future.