AGW Observer

Observations of anthropogenic global warming

Papers on ecosystem response to past climate

Posted by Ari Jokimäki on March 22, 2010

This is a list of papers on ecosystem response to past climate changes. This subject was suggested by J Bowers in this thread. The list is not complete, and will most likely be updated in the future in order to make it more thorough and more representative.

UPDATE (June 10, 2010): Root et al. (2003) added.
UPDATE (May 22, 2010): Woolridge (2008) added, thanks to J Bowers for pointing it out (see the comment section below).

Fossil Plant Relative Abundances Indicate Sudden Loss of Late Triassic Biodiversity in East Greenland – McElwain et al. (2009) “The pace of Late Triassic (LT) biodiversity loss is uncertain, yet it could help to decipher causal mechanisms of mass extinction. We investigated relative abundance distributions (RADs) of six LT plant assemblages from the Kap Stewart Group, East Greenland, to determine the pace of collapse of LT primary productivity. RADs displayed not simply decreases in the number of taxa, but decreases in the number of common taxa. Likelihood tests rejected a hypothesis of continuously declining diversity. Instead, the RAD shift occurred over the upper two-to-four fossil plant assemblages and most likely over the last three (final 13 meters), coinciding with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global warming. Thus, although the LT event did not induce mass extinction of plant families, it accompanied major and abrupt change in their ecology and diversity. “ [Full text]

A long-term association between global temperature and biodiversity, origination and extinction in the fossil record – Mayhew et al. (2008) “We analysed the fossil record for the last 520 Myr against estimates of low latitude sea surface temperature for the same period. We found that global biodiversity (the richness of families and genera) is related to temperature and has been relatively low during warm ‘greenhouse’ phases, while during the same phases extinction and origination rates of taxonomic lineages have been relatively high. These findings are consistent for terrestrial and marine environments and are robust to a number of alternative assumptions and potential biases. Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner.” [Full text]

The palaeoclimatology, palaeoecology and palaeoenvironmental analysis of mass extinction events – Twitchett (2006) “Many aspects of these [mass extinction] events are still debated and there is no common cause or single set of climatic or environmental changes common to these five events, although all are associated with evidence for climatic change. … The environmental consequences of rapid global warming (such as ocean stagnation, reduced upwelling and loss of surface productivity) are considered to have been particularly detrimental to the biosphere in the geological past. The first phase of the Late Ordovician event is clearly linked to rapid global cooling.” [Full text]

Nannoplankton Extinction and Origination Across the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – Gibbs et al. (2006) “The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, 55 million years ago) was an interval of global warming and ocean acidification attributed to rapid release and oxidation of buried carbon. We show that the onset of the PETM coincided with a prominent increase in the origination and extinction of calcareous phytoplankton. Yet major perturbation of the surface-water saturation state across the PETM was not detrimental to the survival of most calcareous nannoplankton taxa and did not impart a calcification or ecological bias to the pattern of evolutionary turnover. Instead, the rate of environmental change appears to have driven turnover, preferentially affecting rare taxa living close to their viable limits.” [Full text]

Exceptional record of mid-Pleistocene vertebrates helps differentiate climatic from anthropogenic ecosystem perturbations – Barnosky et al. (2004) “We report on a uniquely rich mid-Pleistocene vertebrate sequence from Porcupine Cave, Colorado, which records at least 127 species and the earliest appearances of 30 mammals and birds. By analyzing >20,000 mammal fossils in relation to modern species and independent climatic proxies, we determined how mammal communities reacted to presumed glacial–interglacial transitions between 1,000,000 and 600,000 years ago. We conclude that climatic warming primarily affected mammals of lower trophic and size categories, in contrast to documented human impacts on higher trophic and size categories historically. Despite changes in species composition and minor changes in small-mammal species richness evident at times of climatic change, overall structural stability of mammal communities persisted >600,000 years before human impacts.” [Full text]

Did impacts, volcanic eruptions, or climate change affect mammalian evolution? – Prothero (2004) “Two different Cenozoic mammal diversity curves were compared, and important climatic, volcanic, and impact horizons were examined in detail. In no case is there a strong correlation between impacts, eruptions, or climatic events and any episode of mammalian turnover. On the contrary, most of the known impact, eruption, and climatic events of the Cenozoic occurred during intervals of faunal stability. Conversely, episodes of high turnover and faunal change among Cenozoic mammals correlate with no known extrinsic causes. Apparently, extrinsic environmental factors such as impacts, eruptions, and climate change have a minimal effect, and intrinsic biological factors must be more important.”

How to kill (almost) all life: the end-Permian extinction event – Benton & Twitchett (2003) “The biggest mass extinction of the past 600 million years (My), the end-Permian event (251 My ago), witnessed the loss of as much as 95% of all species on Earth. Key questions for biologists concern what combination of environmental changes could possibly have had such a devastating effect, the scale and pattern of species loss, and the nature of the recovery. New studies on dating the event, contemporary volcanic activity, and the anatomy of the environmental crisis have changed our perspectives dramatically in the past five years. Evidence on causation is equivocal, with support for either an asteroid impact or mass volcanism, but the latter seems most probable. The extinction model involves global warming by 6°C and huge input of light carbon into the ocean-atmosphere system from the eruptions, but especially from gas hydrates, leading to an ever-worsening positive-feedback loop, the ‘runaway greenhouse’.” [Full text]

Correlated terrestrial and marine evidence for global climate changes before mass extinction at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary – Wilf et al. (2003) “Both plants and foraminifera indicate warming near 66.0 Ma, a warming peak from ≈65.8 to 65.6 Ma, and cooling near 65.6 Ma, suggesting that these were global climate shifts. The warming peak coincides with the immigration of a thermophilic flora, maximum plant diversity, and the poleward range expansion of thermophilic foraminifera. … To the extent that biodiversity is correlated with temperature, estimates of the severity of end-Cretaceous extinctions that are based on occurrence data from the warming peak are probably inflated, as we illustrate for North Dakota plants. However, our analysis of climate and facies considerations shows that the effects of bolide impact should be regarded as the most significant contributor to these plant extinctions.” [Full text]

Mammalian Response to Global Warming on Varied Temporal Scales – Barnosky et al. (2003) “Paleontological information was used to evaluate and compare how Rocky Mountain mammalian communities changed during past global warming events characterized by different durations (350, ;10,000–20,000, and 4 million years) and different per–100-year warming rates (1.08C, 0.18C, 0.06–0.088C, 0.0002–0.00038C per 100 years). … Nevertheless, examination of past global warming episodes suggested that approximately concurrent with warming, a predictable sequence of biotic events occurs at the regional scale of the central and northern United States Rocky Mountains. First, phenotypic and density changes in populations are detectable within 100 years. Extinction of some species, noticeable changes in taxonomic composition of communities, and possibly reduction in species richness follow as warming extends to a few thousand years. Faunal turnover nears 100% and species diversity may increase when warm temperatures last hundreds of thousands to millions of years, because speciation takes place and faunal changes initiated by a variety of shorter-term processes accumulate. Climate-induced faunal changes reported for the current global warming episode probably do not yet exceed the normal background rate, but continued warming during the next few decades, especially combined with the many other pressures of humans on natural ecosystems, has a high probability of producing effects that have not been experienced often, if ever, in mammalian history.” [Full text]

Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants – Root et al. (2003) “We gathered information on species and global warming from 143 studies for our meta-analyses. These analyses reveal a consistent temperature-related shift, or ‘fingerprint’, in species ranging from molluscs to mammals and from grasses to trees. Indeed, more than 80% of the species that show changes are shifting in the direction expected on the basis of known physiological constraints of species. Consequently, the balance of evidence from these studies strongly suggests that a significant impact of global warming is already discernible in animal and plant populations.”

Earth’s biggest ‘whodunnit’: unravelling the clues in the case of the end–Permian mass extinction – White (2002) “The mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago, was the most devastating loss of life that Earth has ever experienced. It is estimated that ca. 96% of marine species were wiped out and land plants, reptiles, amphibians and insects also suffered. The causes of this catastrophic event are currently a topic of intense debate. The geological record points to significant environmental disturbances, for example, global warming and stagnation of ocean water.” [Full text]

Global Climate Change and North American Mammalian Evolution – Alroy et al. (2000) “We compare refined data sets for Atlantic benthic foraminiferal oxygen isotope ratios and for North American mammalian diversity, faunal turnover, and body mass distributions. Each data set spans the late Paleocene through Pleistocene and has temporal resolution of 1.0 m.y. … Some of the major climate shifts indicated by oxygen isotope records do correspond to major ecological and evolutionary transitions in the mammalian biota, but the nature of these correspondences is unpredictable, and several other such transitions occur at times of relatively little global climate change. We conclude that given currently available climate records, we cannot show that the impact of climate change on the broad patterns of mammalian evolution involves linear forcings; instead, we see only the relatively unpredictable effects of a few major events.” [Full text]

Fossil Plants and Global Warming at the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary – McElwain et al. (1999) “The Triassic-Jurassic boundary marks a major faunal mass extinction, but records of accompanying environmental changes are limited. Paleobotanical evidence indicates a fourfold increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and suggests an associated 3° to 4°C “greenhouse” warming across the boundary. These environmental conditions are calculated to have raised leaf temperatures above a highly conserved lethal limit, perhaps contributing to the >95 percent species-level turnover of Triassic-Jurassic megaflora.”

Abrupt Climate Change and Extinction Events in Earth History – Crowley & North (1988) “There is a growing body of theoretical and empirical support for the concept of abrupt climate change, and a comparison of paleoclimate data with the Phanerozoic extinction record indicates that climate and biotic transitions often coincide. … Our analysis suggests that a terrestrially induced climate instability is a viable mechanism for causing rapid environmental change and biotic turnover in earth history, but the relation is not so strong that other sources of variance can be excluded.” [Full text]

Temperature and biotic crises in the marine realm – Stanley (1984) “Climatic change has been a prominent cause of marine mass extinction, but areal restriction of seafloor during global regression has not. Late Eocene and Pliocene-Pleistocene cooling, for example, caused major extinctions, but profound global Oligocene and Pleistocene regressions had little or no direct effect on benthic diversity. Recurrent themes of pre-Cenozoic marine crises suggest that global temperature change also served as a major, and perhaps dominant, agent of extinction in these events: (1) Mass extinctions have frequently been concentrated in the tropics, which seem to have become a refrigerated trap from which there has been no escape; biotas previously occupying high latitudes have shifted equatorward, to replace disappearing tropical biotas. (2) Some crises were not instantaneous but followed protracted and pulsatile temporal patterns, as would be predicted for complex, global climatic crises. (3) Several mass extinctions coincided with recognized intervals of climatic cooling.”

Closely related

Mass extinctions past and present: a unifying hypothesis – Woolridge (2008) Note that the peer review of this paper was interrupted (see the interactive discussion linked in the abstract page) but I include this paper to show this hypothesis. “Here, it is proposed that the pH-dependent inactivation of a single enzyme, urease, provides a unifying kill-mechanism for at least four of the “big five” mass extinctions of the past 560 million years. The triggering of this kill-mechanism is suggested to be sensitive to both gradualistic and catastrophic environmental disturbances that cause the operating pH of urease-dependent organisms to cross enzymatic “dead zones”, one of which is suggested to exist at ~pH 7.9. For a wide range of oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems, this pH threshold coincides with an atmospheric CO2 partial pressure (pCO2) of ~560 ppmv – a level that at current CO2 emission trajectories may be exceeded as early as 2050.” [Full text]

Documenting a significant relationship between macroevolutionary origination rates and Phanerozoic pCO2 levels – Cornette et al. (2002) “We show that the rates of diversification of the marine fauna and the levels of atmospheric CO2 have been closely correlated for the past 545 million years. … The strength of the correlation suggests that one or more environmental variables controlling CO2 levels have had a profound impact on evolution throughout the history of metazoan life.” [Full text]

Global biodiversity and the ancient carbon cycle – Rothman (2001) “Paleontological data for the diversity of marine animals and land plants are shown to correlate significantly with a concurrent measure of stable carbon isotope fractionation for approximately the last 400 million years.” [Full text]


11 Responses to “Papers on ecosystem response to past climate”

  1. Since you are brilliant at compiling research links I would love to see a section on current impacts of climate change and other greenhouse gas emissions on ecosystems, especially on vegetation.

    I’ve started a list myself (with a few side topics) but it’s paltry I’m sure to what can be found by an expert:

  2. Ari Jokimäki said

    I think this might be what you are looking for:

    But it’s a broad subject and I have been thinking about dividing it to several separate lists sometime in the future. I’ll check out your list, thanks. 🙂

  3. bookmarked for further perusal, thank you!

  4. J Bowers said

    Ari, this might be of interest:

    Mass extinctions past and present: a unifying hypothesis
    S. A. Wooldridge, Australian Institute of Marine Science.

    Biogeosciences Discuss., 5, 2401-2423, 2008

    Full PDF:

  5. Ari Jokimäki said

    Yes, definitely, thanks. Woolridge (2008) added.

    However, something went wrong on this paper’s peer review, as it was interrupted and the abstract page says “Publication in BG not foreseen”. So for now this is not officially accepted paper, so I placed it to the “closely related” section with a note about the situation.

  6. J Bowers said

    Oops, I missed that, thanks.
    If you go to the discussion page there are more interesting points made, including comments by referees with responses, and additional information:
    It seems it’s felt that there needs to be a formal testing of the urease hypothesis.

  7. Ari Jokimäki said

    I did look around there, but I didn’t find the actual reason why they interrupted the process. The comments I looked didn’t seem that bad generally. I didn’t look through all the comments, though.

  8. I couldn’t figure out why it was rejected by reading the comments either.

    I linked to it on my blog and asked this question however:

    From this paper about mass extinctions, some interesting tidbits (and I just love the “unimaginably shocking” towards the end of this excerpt – are scientists allowed to say that??):

    “The immediacy with which this scientific testing must proceed however cannot be overstated, for if true, the con-
    sequences of failure or inaction in this matter are unimaginably shocking.”

  9. J Bowers said

    It gets a cite on the Wiki page for Holocene Extinction (citation 10). Check out citation 11 as well.

    The European Project on Ocean Acidification also gives it more than a mention:

    At they also point out, “The author, S. A. Wooldridge, suggests that immediate scientific discussion and testing is required to confirm the validity of the urease hypothesis.”

    Think it’s worth contacting SA Wooldridge? It’s certainly… the most unimaginably shocking… hypothesis I’ve seen to date.

  10. Ari Jokimäki said

    (and I just love the “unimaginably shocking” towards the end of this excerpt – are scientists allowed to say that??)

    Some papers contain statements like that. I have even seen some tongue-in-cheek stuff occasionally. But they do generally avoid things like that in the scientific articles.

  11. Ari Jokimäki said

    I added Root et al. (2003).

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