We study the impact of climate change on the way ecosystems function. Here’s why.
Climate change affects ecosystems… And us too
Climate defines conditions in which all living organisms thrive, whether it’s a plant, an animal, a fungus, or a human being. Changes in climate pattern affect individual organisms, their physiology, and their interactions with other individuals and other species, as well as the feedback they have on their own environment. Depending on the identity and the role of these species in the ecosystem, this can alter the way ecosystems function. And since many ecosystems have an utilitary function for human society, it may as well impact us.
Figure 1. The role of ecosystems in human well-being. From Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being: Synthesis.
Ecosystems are complex
Predicting how changing climate will affect this whole chain of events is no easy task, however. Because ecosystems are complex: many species interact, of which we often don’t know the physiology, ecology, or function. This is especially the case for small soil organisms, such as microbes or soil fauna. They respond to different climate variables, in a different manner, and at different spatial and temporal scales; and this in turn affect their interactions in the complex, intertwined soil food web and with plants and larger aboveground organisms. How can we then pretend to predict how such a complex system can evolve in future climate conditions?
Figure 2: Ecological complexity: planktonic food web of the North Sea herring. After Cushing and Walsh (1976, from Hardy, 1924).Copyright © 1976
We need interdisciplinarity and complementary experimental approaches
The answer lies in combining many diverse and complementary approaches and expertises.
- Experiments in the field, in controlled environment facilities, ecotrons, greenhouses, growth chambers, and laboratories all are needed here. They all offer a different blend of realism and control, and can be therefore used to understand different mechanisms, different responses, and at different temporal and spatial scales.
- Further, one cannot understand how a complex ecosystem responds to climate change without a holistic approach, encompassing as many expertises as possible to cover most of its compartments: botanists, zoologists, microbiologists, ecologists, modellers, soil biogeochemists, hydrologists, climatologists, data scientists, or engineers.
- Modelling serves as a bridge to integrate the findings from different approaches and disciplines.
Evidently we use the added value of an Ecotron infrastructure.
Current research projects/goals: