Arctic habitats to be worst hit by climate change, models show


A new study shows that the word's northernmost forests will be among the habitats suffering the worst effects of climate change over the next 500 years.

The work was led by researchers from universities in York, Leeds, Oxford and Montreal, as well as the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

The team ran a tried-and-tested climate model to see what the potential effects of climate change on habitats across the planet as far ahead as the year 2500, a full 400 years further ahead than most climate models.

Boreal birds like Great Grey Owl could be subject to increased human pressure as the climate changes (Peter Beesley).

Longer-term predictions are important to find out how humans and wildlife might need to respond to the impacts of climate change over the course of this millennium.

Boreal forest is Earth's most important carbon store and supply of clean water. The model used by the research team showed that this habitat could see some of the most serious impacts worldwide, alongside the tundra regions to the north. Tundra also has a significant role in regulating the planet's climate.

More extreme movements by animals and plants could be seen in the future in response to the changing climate, according to the researchers. They also said that some species could be lost forever because they will not be able to move to new areas quickly enough, putting ecosystems as we know them today in jeopardy.

Dr Christopher Lyon, from the University of York's Department of Environment and Geography and Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, said: "We know now that some aspects of climate change are inevitable and so a level of adaptation is required, but how extensive these adaptations need to be is still in our hands. It is, therefore, useful to look beyond the UN's 2030 and 2050 carbon emission targets, as well as the 2100 climate model predictions, as we know that climate change won't stop there.

"By looking much further into the future -- the future that our grandchildren will face -- we can see that there is a significant difference between climate change rates, species migration rates, and their migration ability. Trees, for example, will migrate much slower than birds and mammals, and boreal decline radically changes the ecosystems they've formed since the glaciers retreated about 12,000 years ago.

"Those species that can't adapt or move to more suitable locations will radically decline in number and range or even go extinct."

Earth's boreal regions have fewer people and are colder than much of the rest of the planet, but the researchers say that a changing planet may see more people move in to these areas as other parts of the planet become less hospitable. This could put significant pressure on these high-latititude ecosystems.

Dr Lyon said: "What's most important, I think, is that the long-term projections highlight the scale of the change we, and especially our children and grandchildren face even under the lower warming scenarios and the need to start thinking very hard now about what it will take for all of us to live justly in those possible worlds."

The research was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, with funding from the White Rose Collaboration Fund and the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr Bethany Allen, from ETH, said: "Our study indicates the longevity and severity of the impacts that human-induced climate change will have on the biosphere. The need to protect boreal forest and tundra biomes is particularly pressing, and our results demonstrate how large-scale geographic shifts in the areas occupied by these biomes might be necessary in order to preserve them over the next few hundred years."



Allen, BJ, Hill, DJ, Burke, AM, Clark, M, Marchant, R, Stringer, LC, Williams, DR, & Lyon, C. (2024). Projected future climatic forcing on the global distribution of vegetation types. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 379(1902), DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2023.0011