The Ecological Velocity of Climate Change

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O'Leary, Donal Sean
Hurtt, George C
Vegetation productivity and distributions are largely driven by climate, and increasing variability in seasonal and interannual climate is both changing the spatiotemporal patterns of resource availability across the landscape, and driving species’ migrations towards climate refugia. Climate and vegetation dynamics take place along the time dimension (e.g. earlier snowmelt and arrival of spring in temperate mountains), but they also occur throughout space, where changes in climate can be expressed as a movement across the landscape (e.g. warm temperatures and migratory animals moving uphill in spring, or tree species distributions moving uphill and towards the poles under climate change). Here, we present new methods to track the movement of climate and vegetation, quantifying the ecological velocity of climate change at the landscape scale. Our focus is on national parks of the USA, which are important study areas because of their great conservation and social value, protection from anthropogenic disturbances, and longstanding research and monitoring records. First, we explore the spatio-temporal relationships between snowmelt timing and vegetation phenology in Crater Lake National Park. We find that snowmelt timing is closely linked to spring greenup, but has far weaker influence on later season phenology, such as the senescence or growing season length. Second, we extend our comparison of snowmelt timing with vegetation phenology across space and time together as we track the speed and direction of receding seasonal snowpack (snowmelt velocity) with the ‘green wave velocity’ of spring greenness that follows. We find that snowmelt velocity has a moderate predictive power for green wave velocity in areas with steep slopes, where both phenomena are controlled by strong spatial gradients relating to elevation. Third, we extend our analysis into the future as we forecast the climate velocity of air temperature and precipitation in and surrounding national parks from 2019-2099. Here, we identify possible corridors and velocities of future climate migration across park boundaries, highlighting locations of ecological concern and climate vulnerability. Taken together, our analysis of the ecological velocity of climate change forms new connections among climate, conservation, and spatial sciences while prioritizing management-relevant deliverables.