Science - October 20, 2010

A glimpse of nature’s future

Climate change influences the distribution of plants and animals. Alterra has mapped the consequences in a digital atlas.

The climate zones of plants and animals are shifting - generally speaking, northwards - due to global warming. Together with several other nature organizations, Alterra has made available as much climate change-related information as possible in the form of a digital atlas. The atlas depicts the impact of climate change on the distribution of 3,000 species of plants and animals in the Netherlands up to 2050.
Take Cetti's warbler, for example. Keen bird watchers will know that this is a fairly rare songbird only occasionally found in the south of the Netherlands. But climate change is changing this bird's fortunes and in a few decades we shall all be familiar with it. The same goes for Bonelli's warbler and the marbled newt. The large heath butterfly, on the other hand, is set to disappear. This rare butterfly can now still be found at one or two spots in Drenthe. The same fate may be in store for the short-eared owl and the moor frog.

The large heath butterfly
Tool for policymakers
The database is a handy tool for land use managers and policymakers, says project leader Claire Vos of Alterra's Landscape Centre. 'It is interesting to see how a particular species reacts to climate change. It is a tool that can give you some idea of the feasibility of your targets.' But Vos points out its limitations too. 'You should not see this as offering the absolute truth. It is a simple tool. There is always an element of uncertainty. For example, we don't know exactly which climate we will get. The models tell you what you can expect in terms of climate change.'
It's all about potential effects then, says Vos. 'But measures might be taken that will mitigate the predicted changes. Or aggravate them, on the other hand.' In any case, climate is not the only factor, according to Vos. 'The climate might become more suitable for a particular species, but that doesn't tell you whether there is a habitat for it available and accessible, and whether the species is able to establish itself there.'