From observation to action: climate adaptation and southern marine species

This week, the Third International Symposium on the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans takes place in Santos, Brazil and we are featuring a number of articles throughout the week from speakers at the symposium.
Published: 24 March 2015

​Lynda Chambers, Australian Bureau of Meteorology & Phillip Island Nature Parks, Alistair Hobday, CSIRO, and, Peter Dann, Phillip Island Nature Parks. Dr. Chambers is an invited apeaker at S6: Climate change in the seasonal domain: Impacts on the phenology of marine ecosystems and their consequences and will be presenting on this work.

Variation in the marine environment can have wide-ranging and cascading impacts on marine species and ecosystems.

On a global scale, marine species are one of the most threatened groups, with the Southern Hemisphere over-represented in the numbers of species of conservation concern. Understanding environmental and anthropogenic drivers of change has been the focus in recent decades, with climate change now an additional major threat to many populations.

Shedding light on climate-related changes through phenology

Phenology is the study of the relationship between seasonal climatic patterns and the timing of annual life-cycle phases of species, such as migration or breeding. Studying the timing of these fundamental biological processes is used as a way to 'fingerprint' specie's responses to changes in the marine environment.

The drivers of phenological change in southern species vary, but are generally associated with changes in oceanographic conditions, with the extent and distribution of sea-ice playing an important role for more southerly species. Higher land surface temperatures may have a negative impact on breeding productivity through increased competition for breeding sites and heat-related stress for some species and locations. Conversely, for species such as the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) in south-eastern Australia, higher ocean temperatures correspond to increased productivity and higher first-year survival, at least in the short-term.

Improving adaptation planning

Given these observed changes, and future climate projections, methods to assess the best adaptation options in the face of climate change are needed. Fortunately, there are a range of options for reducing vulnerability of colonial seabirds, however, options are more limited for other marine species. Most suggested adaptation strategies are built around the terrestrial phases of life histories, such as breeding, due to greater baseline knowledge and relative ease to implement and monitor. These strategies often focus on protecting and improving breeding habitats and conditions to buffer climatic extremes. A good knowledge of the species life-cycle phases and how they are influenced by climate variation can help optimise the targeting of management activities under such strategies.

Exploring adaptation options is a first step in adaptation planning, however decision-makers would benefit from a clearer pathway to adaptation implementation. We suggest three additional stages in adaptation planning, which we term "Sequential Adaptation Prioritization for Species" (SAPS).  SAPS comprises a set of four tools to evaluate and prioritise options, including generation of options, and assessment of technical merit, institutional barriers and social acceptability. Monitoring to evaluate effectiveness of an adaptation option is critical, and should be a focus in any adaptation intervention.  Capturing this information will be essential to building the experience of researchers and conservation managers charged with securing the future of marine species.


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Higher ocean temperatures correspond to increased productivity and higher first-year survival, at least in the short-term, for Little Penguins in south-eastern Australia

Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) family exiting burrow, Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia. Photo: JJ Harrison​.

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From observation to action: climate adaptation and southern marine species

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