Satellites track impact of climate change on ecosystems

Satellite images have helped scientists assess the impact of climate change on ecosystems by looking at areas untouched by human activity, showing that climate change predictions are already underway in some parts of Africa.

A research team, led by Dr Nathalie Pettorelli from ZSL, used remote sensing imagery to monitor 168 highly protected areas in 33 African countries over 27 years.

They focused on Africa because it contains a large proportion of the remaining world biodiversity, and is expected to be hit hard by climate change. The protected areas chosen are impacted by only a limited amount of human activity, making them ideal for monitoring climate change effects.

According to current projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), seasonal patterns in temperature and precipitation are expected to increase in strength in Eastern and Southern Africa. The team hypothesised that this should have consequences for vegetation dynamics in these parts of the world.

As expected, all of the protected areas with significantly reduced greenness and amplified seasonal patterns were located in Eastern and Southern Africa, and over 50 per cent of the protected areas from these regions showed similar trends in vegetation dynamics. 1 out of 10 of these protected areas showed significant decrease in primary production over the past three decades, while 15 per cent of them were associated with significant increase in the strength of seasonality in vegetation dynamics.

Dr Pettorelli said: “Protected areas are the backbone of most conservation strategies. Our work shows how these could also be used to track the effect of climate change on ecosystems worldwide. It also suggests that satellite-based data should be better integrated with biodiversity monitoring programs, as the patterns we report will have consequences for local wildlife.”

The study, Tracking the effect of climate change on ecosystem functioning using protected areas: Africa as a case study, is published today (23rd March) in Ecological Indicators.

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