An initiative of Earthwatch Institute

IPCC impacts report released

April 2014

By Linden Ashcroft

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from Working Group II of the IPCC was released in early April. The report is the work of over 700 scientists from around the world, who evaluated information from more than 12,000 scientific publications on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities associated with climate change.

The effect of climate change on ecosystems, human health, infrastructure and global security were all examined in detail, to provide policy makers and the wider community with the most complete picture of the current and future impacts of climate change.

As expected, the report paints a dire picture for the future of global ecosystems. Many marine and terrestrial species have already started responding to changes in their local environment, by shifting their location, migration pattern or seasonal life cycle. Some species of rats, birds and reptiles have even been found to change their size to handle higher temperatures.

In Australia, coral reefs and alpine regions have been identified as the ecosystems most at risk from rising temperatures. Higher ocean temperatures have already caused mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. As the snow line rises across our alpine areas and weeds and pests become more widespread, native species that inhabit the mountains may lose more of their habitat, and are at increased risk of extinction.

The snow gum and other alpine species are at risk from warming temperatures (Image: iStockphoto)

The Common Brown butterfly (Heteronympha merope). (Image: Geoff Walker).

Studies of potential future impacts show that the distribution many of Australia’s iconic species will shrink in the years to come. Koalas, platypus, banksia trees, northern kangaroos, quokkas and many types of birds are predicted to lose their habitat in the future.

On the other hand some invasive species are predicted to extend their range. For example, the destructive long-spined sea urchin was once only found in NSW, but has now migrated as far south as Tasmania. In fact, the warm East Australian Current has advanced 350km in the past 60 years, leading to the southerly migration of many other intertidal species.

ClimateWatch provides data on the timing of annual life stages, such as breeding or flowering. Analysis of this type of information, known as phenological data, revealed that Common Brown butterflies are now appearing in southern Australia more than 10 days earlier than the 1940s. Our migratory birds have also shifted their arrival date in response to rainfall changes.

Plants were additionally found to display phenology changes, with earlier flowering dates. However, the vast majority of this research has been conducted in the Northern Hemisphere, with very few studies examined for Australia or the Southern Hemisphere.

The findings from the WGII report show the real value of making regular ClimateWatch observations, and the need for more phenological data in Australia. Encouragingly, the report also suggests that getting out into the local environment inspires people to act on climate change.

‘The more individuals identify with particular places and their natural features’, says the report, ‘the greater the motivation to address environmental threats’. So encourage your friends to sign up to ClimateWatch now, and engage them in saving their environment.  

You can read the full report, including Chapter 25 on Australia, here. A shorter summary from the Climate Council can be found here.