Biological responses to 21st climate climate change

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This page is part of the topic Antarctic climate and environment change over the next 100 years

All organisms, both terrestrial and marine, are exposed to environmental change. Many polar species, more particularly in the thermally stable marine environment, are vulnerable to change because they are specialised to cope with a narrow range of conditions; in addition, they must face human-induced stresses. Species that fail to adapt to climate change requirements exceeding the organism’s internal flexibility limits, or fail to migrate, will become extinct. The high vulnerability of Antarctic benthos (Peck, 2005[1]) suggests that long-term survival of these organisms under conditions of rapid climate change may be compromised.

Nevertheless, we do have to bear in mind that many Antarctic species may have survived the massive climate changes from glacial to interglacial and back in the past, though geological and ice core records indicate that these have been primarily cooler episodes, warm interglacials having been relatively short. We also need to be aware that extrapolating laboratory results to the wild may involve unreasonable assumptions about the ability of biota to respond to change taking place over longer timescales than can be addressed by current technology and short-term funding regimes.

In addition we have to bear in mind that although the impacts of climate change tend to be larger in the polar regions than elsewhere, it is not easy to predict precisely what the effect of a change in one parameter, like temperature, may be, given the immense complexity of ecological systems and biological responses. This is particularly the case given the current lack of linkage between the description and modelling of environmental variables at macro- and biologically relevant micro-climatic physical scales. Summaries of the worldwide changes observed over the Twentieth Century are supplied by Anisimov et al. (2001[2]), Walther et al. (2002[3]), and in the 2007 IPCC report (Anisimov et al., 2007[4]).

Pages in this topic

  1. Terrestrial biology over the next 100 years
  2. Marine biology over the next 100 years
  3. The Antarctic marine ecosystem in the year 2100


  1. Peck, L.S. 2005. Prospects for survival in the Southern Ocean: vulnerability of benthic species to temperature change, Antarctic Sci., 17, 497-507.
  2. Anisimov, O., Fitzharris, B.B., Hagen, J.O., Jefferies, B., Marchant, H., Nelson, F., Prowse, T. and Vaughan, D. 2001. Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic). In: Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pp 801-841 (McCarthy, J.J., Canziani, O.F., Leary, N.A., Dokken, D.J. and White, K.S, Eds), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  3. Walther, G-R., Post, E., Convey, P., Menzel, A., Parmesan, C., Beebee, T.J.C, Fromentin, J-M., Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Bairlein, F. 2002. Ecological responses to recent climate change, Nature, 416, 389-395.
  4. Anisimov, O.A., Vaughan, D.G., Callaghan, T.V., Furgal, C., Marchant, H., Prowse, T.D., Vilhjálmsson, H. and Walsh, J.E. 2007. In: Climate Change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment. Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), pp. 653-685 (Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE, Eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.