The impact of climate change on ecosystems

Butterfly on a flower

Humans have been managing the world’s ecosystems to feed people, and provide them with water and energy for centuries. Our research looks at how climate change cuts across these processes and their impacts on human wellbeing.

Many of the impacts of climate change that are important for people are closely linked to its effect on ecosystems; including its effect on public health, food production and water supplies.  And the functioning of natural and managed ecosystems also has impacts on the climate system (e.g. through the use of nitrogen fertilisers). We aim to combine the best Earth science research with the best ecosystems science to model, predict and manage these impacts.

Our research allows us to look at ways of mitigating and limiting the effects of climate change, and at how the natural world may adapt to it, in wild places as well as cultivated ones. Our approach is distinctive because it integrates climate change research with work on how ecosystem change affects people.

Plants are highly sensitive to all these climatic factors: whilst CO2 increases are generally good for plants, increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns can be positive or negative, depending on the geographic location and the individual species of plant. Animals are also adapted to specific environmental conditions, and in some cases future temperature changes could mean that species can no longer thrive in their current habitats. Climate change often interacts with other human influences such as deforestation, sometimes magnifying their effects.

Rates of extinction could potentially increase as a result of climate change, particularly in cold-adapted ecosystems, for example cloud forests, at high altitudes in mountainous regions of the tropics. As other species move up the mountain, it is likely that the existing species could get pushed out. Arctic species could also be at risk, because there will be nowhere cooler for them to migrate to as temperatures increase. The Mediterranean region is expected to get significantly drier, and this along with the effects of warming, could leave some species very vulnerable.

Researchers across Imperial are currently engaged in research assessing the risks that climate change poses to ecosystems. Working closely with the Grantham Institute, Imperial’s new “Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment” initiative is a global multidisciplinary hub for addressing key environmental challenges, carrying out internationally excellent science with a focus on finding collaborative solutions, and acting as an interface between science, practitioners and policy makers.