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Warming driving fish toward poles at alarming speed: study

Aug. 5, 2013
Courtesy of UCSB
and World Science staff

Con­tra­ry to pre­vi­ous think­ing, ma­rine spe­cies are head­ing to­ward the poles as the cli­mate warms—and do­ing so more than 10 times faster than land crea­tures, a re­port says.

“The lead­ing edge or front-line of ma­rine spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tions is mov­ing to­ward the poles at an av­er­age of 72 km [45 miles] per decade,” com­pared to 6 km for land spe­cies, said El­vi­ra Po­lo­czan­ska, the lead au­thor.


“This is oc­cur­ring even though sea sur­face tempe­ratures are warm­ing three times slower than land tempe­ratures,” added Po­lo­czan­ska, a re­search sci­ent­ist with Aus­trali­a’s na­t­ional sci­ence agen­cy, the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tif­ic and In­dus­t­ri­al Re­search Or­ga­nisa­t­ion. 

Oceans cov­er 71 pe­rcent of Earth’s sur­face, but our knowl­edge of its re­sponses to cli­mate change is far less than for land habi­tats. The new re­port, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Cli­mate Change, is de­signed to help cor­rect that de­fi­cien­cy.

The vast blue deep is “a to­tally dif­fer­ent sys­tem with its own un­ique set of com­plex­i­ties and sub­tleties,” said Ca­mille Parme­san of the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin, one of the re­search­ers. Yet the im­pact is sim­i­lar: “an over­whelm­ing re­sponse of spe­cies shift­ing where and when they live in an at­tempt to track a shift­ing cli­mate.”

The sci­ent­ists, from 17 in­sti­tu­tions world­wide, gath­ered da­ta from se­ven coun­tries to cre­ate a da­tabase of 1,735 changes in ma­rine life from re­search lit­er­a­ture. The changes were doc­u­mented with an av­er­age length of 40 years of ob­serva­t­ion.

“This is the first com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­menta­t­ion of what is hap­pen­ing in our ma­rine sys­tems in rela­t­ion to cli­mate change,” Parme­san said. “Far from be­ing a buff­er and dis­play­ing more mi­nor changes, what we’re see­ing is a far stronger re­sponse from the oceans.”

The larg­est shifts were found for plank­ton and bony fish, which are most fish. Re­search­ers al­so found that the tim­ing of spring events in the oceans had ad­vanced by more than four days, nearly twice the fig­ure for land.


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Contrary to previous thinking, marine species are heading toward the poles as the climate warms—and doing so more than 10 times faster than land creatures, a report said. “The leading edge or front-line of marine species distributions is moving toward the poles at an average of 72 km [45 miles] per decade,” compared to 6 km for land species, said Elvira Poloczanska, lead author of the paper. “This is occurring even though sea surface temperatures are warming three times slower than land temperatures,” added Poloczanska, a research scientist with Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Oceans cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface, but our knowledge of its responses to climate change is far less than for land habitats. The new report, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, is designed to help correct that deficiency. The vast blue deep is “a totally different system with its own unique set of complexities and subtleties,” said Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the researchers. Yet the impact is similar: “an overwhelming response of species shifting where and when they live in an attempt to track a shifting climate.” The scientists, from 17 institutions worldwide, gathered data from seven countries to create a database of 1,735 changes in marine life from research literature. The changes were documented with an average length of 40 years of observation. “This is the first comprehensive documentation of what is happening in our marine systems in relation to climate change,” Parmesan said. “Far from being a buffer and displaying more minor changes, what we’re seeing is a far stronger response from the oceans.” The largest shifts were found for phytoplankton, zooplankton, and bony fish. Researchers also found that the timing of spring events in the oceans had advanced by more than four days, nearly twice the figure for land. The strength of response varied, but again, the research showed the greatest response — up to 11 days in advancement — occurred in invertebrate zooplankton and larval bony fish.