Extreme climate events are becoming the norm these days, with red warnings for extreme heat being emitted for most of Central Europe just a few weeks ago (45.9 °C in Paris!).
One of the issues with such ‘extremes’ is that, while isolated and easily dismissed as 'just an event', they can cause damage to the environment, causing mass mortality of sensitive species. Let's not forget that we are also 'animals' and these extremes can have negative influences for human health, especially when they occur so early in the season as they have had this year. I would like to remark this last part. Time. And you may frown your brows and ask: Why does timing matter? If you bare with me, everything will come, hopefully, a little more clear. And don't worry, you don't have to have a bachelor in Biology to understand this post...
The short answer, for all that are wondering, is that we are not yet acclimated to the season temperatures when these 'isolated' events occur.
What am I talking about? What is acclimatisation? And how does it differ from the other common term ‘adaptation’ ? Adaptation is the ability of an organism (a human person for example) to react to a different suit of environmental conditions. Someone in the desert might have a different suit of adaptations (body shape for example but also hidden than someone in the tropical forest (dry vs humid climes) from someone close to the poles (hot vs cold climes). Now, imagine that you are living in neither one of those extreme scenarios, and maybe inhabit one of those regions which experience strong seasonal fluctuation (the east coast of North America comes to mind, as during my time in Canada I experienced a change from -30 to + 30 Celsius in just short of six months..). If you live in the latter, your body might show adaptation to cope with both scenarios - opening (or tightening) the blood vessels , increasing sweat production, shivering , growing hair, accumulating fat .. but it needs to know when to use them or when to start! And while some processes are immediate, others take longer. That’s why one suffers the cold more at the beginning of winter and the heat more at the beginning of summer: because the body has not yet acclimated, so it has not yet found the right ‘rhythm’ and is being ‘thrown out of havoc’ by the surrounding changes. And it can be dangerous as the body either does not yet know how to react or maybe reacts too much, for example by opening blood vessels too much causing a shock to the heart. Or sweating too much causing extreme dehydration etc.
Now, I gave you all human example to which maybe most of you could relate, but as I mentioned at the beginning, it is a problem for many other living organisms. Until recently, we have considered average temperatures of climate to predict the effects of climate change on species ability to cope and their future distribution. This was mostly due to logistics of studies (before the time of the modern technologies that are constantly improving), but we (I am talking for myself but i'd like to speak for at least some of the scientific community, or at least some of my closer colleagues) realised that only considering one temperature for a fixed duration will mask a lot of underlying effects. Some species might be more adapted at coping with fast fluctuating changes than other, some species or individuals might cope with one spike but maybe not the following, or maybe in certain years when small fluctuations are present throughout a season, organisms are more likely to cope. This makes predictive studies on one hand necessary and on the other a lot more complex. All suits of interactions should eventually be incorporated (e.g. if one species is influenced, and that species is prey for another, how will the other get the necessary energy for coping with the changes?). And how will all of this influence not only single species, but all biodiversity and the ecosystem function they support, and ultimately, how will they influence our economy? There is plenty of work for scientists to do (and hopefully governments will also realise this and give us some more funding!). Who knows, maybe we will be able to use 'pre mortality' responses as predictor of stress, and be able to use them to understand dynamics.. Come back soon, when I have some results from my newest line of research...
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