International Conference on the Impact of Global Warming on Plant and Animal Life

Trinity College Dublin hosted an international conference,  ‘Phenology 2010: climate change impacts and adaptations’ on June 14-18th last.

The conference brought together experts from around the world in the fields of plant and animal phenology from both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to discuss the latest techniques for determining the impact of climate change, in particular, rising temperature, on the natural environment and to explore ways of adapting to or mitigating against these impacts.

Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring natural events such as leaf unfolding, insect appearance and bird migration. When spring temperature is warmer than average these events occur earlier in the year and when spring temperature is cooler than average, as was the case in 2010, these events occur later in the season.  Because phenology, in particular spring phenology, is sensitive to temperature it is widely used as an indicator of climate-change.

“The conference aimed to raise awareness among scientists and the general public alike of the impacts of global warming on plant and animal life and subsequently help develop short and long-term policies to reduce the impact of global warming on the environment”, explained TCD’s Dr Alison Donnelly of the School of Natural Sciences and organiser of the conference. “Raising awareness of climate change issues is one thing but acting on the scientific knowledge is crucial to inform effective policy making for the future.”

Silver gull and chick.

Phenology experts at the conference such as Professor Josep Peñuelas from the Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona, explained that the projected increase in trees growth due to rising temperature may not be as large as expected because of a potential increase in drought. In line with this, Dr Stephen Thackeray from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster presented evidence of mismatches in the timing of phenology of interdependent species with a consequential disruption to ecosystem functioning. In other words, not all species respond to climate change at the same rate, which could result in a food source (e.g insects) for a migratory bird being available before the bird arrives. This could lead to a ‘mismatch’ in the timing of the food source for the bird which could have detrimental consequences for the bird population.

The relationship between changes in Antarctic seabird phenology and their dependence on sea ice as a habitat or food resource was presented by Dr Stephanie Jenouvrier from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA.  As sea ice extent decreases the habitat for some seabirds disappears.

The ability of some birds to adjust the timing of their breeding to match the availability of their food source will be explored by Dr Anne Charmantier from the Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive in Montpellier. Elisabeth Beaubien from PlantWatch Canada, will discuss the benefits of involving the general public in monitoring the environment and collecting data in a citizen science programme.

There was also  a photographic exhibition at the conference which  linked the visual arts and science through images of plant and animal phenology.