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UA study finds damages to ecology could be worse than predicted

Published: Monday, December 13, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, December 14, 2021 - 10:18am
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Climate-only models may be underestimating the damage to wildlife from climate change. That is according to a new study led by the University of Arizona that took 10 years of research. 

The study looked at data on plants and wildlife to see the effects on ecology. The team of researchers collected information from more than 23,000 pinyon pines in the Southwest.

They have undergone dramatic changes in population due to drought.

While trees are directly impacted by climate change through temperature and precipitation, they also are indirectly affected by insects and fire. Those have rapid shifts in tree populations and distribution. 

Study Co-author Margaret Evans says humans have had multiple roles in their population changes. 

"Fire has a really important role in determining where you see this common pinyon. And climate drives fire, because climate drives the kind of fuels you see on this landscape," she said. 

When the environments get wetter, grasses grow more. This provides more fuel for fires, which pinyon pines have no defenses for. 

"Because we have been suppressing fire, that fire ends up being more severe than it would have been." Evans added. 

Historically when fires were mores frequent, they were less intense. But Pinyon pines have faced other challenges such as insect explosions. 

Due to drought, the pine's defenses against insects were dramatically reduced.

Evans says species distribution related to climate change has cascading effects on ecosystems that climate-only models don’t take into account. 

"It's going to take models to reflect some of that complexity." Evans said. "Otherwise we are going to end up surprised, and unpleasantly surprised."

The research was published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Science Climate Change