Beyond long-term averages: making biological sense of a rapidly changing world

B. Helmuth, B.D. Russell, S.D. Connell, Y. Dong , C. DG Harley, F.P. Lima, G. Sará, G.A. Williams, and N. Mieszkowska


This paper was initiated by INSHORE researchers at the INSHORE workshop at University of Adelaide in 2013, with development of the concept during the INSHORE workshop at University of British Columbia in 2013 and completion at the INSHORE workshop at Northeastern University in 2014.

Biological responses to climate change are typically communicated in generalized terms such as poleward and altitudinal range shifts, but adaptation efforts relevant to management decisions often require forecasts that incorporate the interaction of multiple climatic and nonclimatic stressors at far smaller spatiotemporal scales. We argue that the desire for generalizations has, ironically, contributed to the frequent conflation of weather with climate, even within the scientific community. As a result, current predictions of ecological responses to climate change, and the design of experiments to understand underlying mechanisms, are too often based on broad-scale trends and averages that at a proximate level may have very little to do with the vulnerability of organisms and ecosystems. The creation of biologically relevant metrics of environmental change that incorporate the physical mechanisms by which climate trains patterns of weather, coupled with knowledge of how organisms and ecosystems respond to these changes, can offer insight into which aspects of climate change may be most important to monitor and predict. This approach also has the potential to enhance our ability to communicate impacts of climate change to nonscientists and especially to stakeholders attempting to enact climate change adaptation policies.