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Cli­mate zones will shift faster as cli­mate warms

pub­lished 23 April 2013 | mod­i­fied 05 April 2014

Polar bear hudsonbayAs the planet warms, Earth’s cli­mate zones are shift­ing at an accel­er­at­ing pace, says a new study led by a sci­en­tist at the Coop­er­a­tive Insti­tute for Research in Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences, a joint ven­ture between the Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado Boul­der and the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Administration.

The warmer the cli­mate gets, the faster the cli­mate zones are shift­ing. This could make it harder for plants and ani­mals to adjust.
Irina Mahlstein, lead author, CIRES sci­en­tist who works at NOAA’s Earth Sys­tem Research Lab­o­ra­tory in Boul­der, Col­orado »
The accel­er­a­tion of change means that the species inhab­it­ing each zone have less time to adapt to the cli­matic changes, said Mahlstein.

The study is the first to look at the accel­er­at­ing pace of the shift­ing of cli­mate zones, which are areas of the Earth defined by annual and sea­sonal cycles of tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, as well as tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion thresh­olds of plant species. Over 30 dif­fer­ent cli­mate zones are found on Earth; exam­ples include the equa­to­r­ial mon­soonal zone, the polar tun­dra zone and cold arid desert zone.

“A shift in the cli­mate zone is prob­a­bly a bet­ter mea­sure of ‘real­ity’ for liv­ing sys­tems, more so than chang­ing tem­per­a­ture by a degree or pre­cip­i­ta­tion by a cen­time­ter,” said Mahlstein.

The sci­en­tists used cli­mate model sim­u­la­tions and a well-​known ecosys­tem clas­si­fi­ca­tion scheme to look at the shifts between cli­mate zones over a two-​century period, 1900 to 2098. The team found that for an ini­tial 2 degrees Cel­sius of warm­ing, about 5 per­cent of Earth’s land area shifts to a new cli­mate zone.

The mod­els show that the pace of change quick­ens for the next 2 °C of warm­ing as an addi­tional 10 per­cent of the land area shifts to a new cli­mate zone. The paper was pub­lished online in the jour­nal Nature Cli­mate Change on April 21.

Cer­tain regions of the globe, such as north­ern mid­dle and high lat­i­tudes, will undergo more changes than other regions, such as the trop­ics, the sci­en­tists found. In the trop­ics, moun­tain­ous regions will expe­ri­ence big­ger changes than low-​altitude areas.

In the com­ing cen­tury, the find­ings sug­gest that frost cli­mates — the cold­est cli­mate zone of the planet — will largely decrease. In gen­eral, dry regions in dif­fer­ent areas of the globe will increase, and a large frac­tion of land area will change from cool sum­mers to hot sum­mers, accord­ing to the study.

The sci­en­tists also inves­ti­gated whether tem­per­a­ture or pre­cip­i­ta­tion had a greater impact on how much of the land area changed zones. “We found that tem­per­a­ture is the main fac­tor, at least through the end of this cen­tury,” said Mahlstein.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado Boul­der news release, 22.04.2013)

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