We need to keep an eye on key species to track the impacts of climate change, but southern hemisphere countries like New Zealand and Australia are falling behind.
The warning comes from South African and Australian scientists in an article published today in Austral Ecology.
As the world warms, say the authors, we need long-term data to understand how plants and animals are changing their habitats and lifecycles. Without this knowledge, policy makers will be in the dark about the impacts of global change on biodiversity. This in turn will hamper adaptation planning and conservation management.
“Few countries anywhere in the world have comprehensive long-term biodiversity data to support the development of detailed climatic change adaptation programmes,” they write, “but the lack of data and capacity to interpret it in policy, planning and management contexts is acute in much of the south.”
They warn that even relatively well-resourced countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile and South Africa are poor in long time series data compared with countries in Europe, Asia and North America.
Citing the large climatic differences between the northern and southern hemispheres, the authors stress that we cannot rely on data from the north to understand how life in the southern hemisphere will change in a warming world.
“Significant national and international investment and collaboration are needed for most southern nations to reliably track biodiversity trends and improve conservation adaptation to rapid climate change.”
Some species act as ‘sentinels’ offering the first signals of environmental change – a sort of canary in the climate coalmine. Last year the New Zealand Herald covered a number of plants and animals which might offer the first insights into a changing climate, including humpback whales, tuatara and kauri trees.
Several of the scientists interviewed warned that without continuing research and monitoring, drastic shifts in biodiversity might go unnoticed.
Auckland University biological sciences lecturer Dr Brendon Dunphy said that warming oceans may have impacted the diet of sooty sheerwaters, leading more to more of the birds dying after lengthy migrations, but:
“In the absence of ongoing monitoring programmes in New Zealand, it’s hard to say.”
Calling on citizen scientists
Modern science does have an ace up its sleeve: people power. Citizen science must play an increasing role in data collection say the authors of the Austral Ecology article. They highlight initiatives such as ClimateWatch in Australia and the Southern African Bird Atlas Project as the types of programmes we need to see more of in the southern hemisphere.
These projects “readily and very cost-effectively gather valuable basic data for tracking and understanding environmental change,” say the authors.
“Such programmes offer promise, both as components of early warning systems of environmental change, and increasing understanding of the responses of southern ecosystems and species to rapid change in the face of low institutional capacity.”
Here in New Zealand there are a growing number of citizen science initiatives taking place. The Inventory of Citizen Science in New Zealand, just published this month, provides a first-of-its-kind snapshot of citizen science activities across the country.