Global warming could unravel UK’s peatland ecosystems

Vast areas of peatlands in the UK are at risk from climate change. Photo via the IUCN.
Vast areas of peatlands in the UK are at risk from climate change. Photo via the IUCN.

More research showing the cascading ecosystem impacts of climate change

Staff Report

FRISCO — Plovers, grouse and other bird species will suffer as global warming changes the hydrology of the UK’s far-reaching blanket bogs, scientists warned after developing a model that shows how climate change will play out in those wetland ecosystems.

The University of York researchers also warmed that the changes could also put drinking water supplies at risk. Warmer temperatures will lead to peat decomposition and altered rainfall patterns, including summer droughts, which could drastically affecting the blanket bog hydrology.

The study was done by a team with the British Trust for Ornithology, Aberystwyth University and the University of Leeds and part-funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It showed that the humble crane fly, more commonly known as daddy longlegs, is a crucial link in determining the impact of climate change on these peatland bird species. The results have been published in Nature Communications.
The birds depend on the protein rich crane flies as food for chicks, but scientists have discovered that summer droughts, which are predicted to increase, will cause significant declines in crane flies and subsequently the bird species that depend on them.

Based on a peatland model developed at the University of York and latest climate change predictions, the researchers warn that by 2051-80 the dunlin could see a 50 percent  decline in numbers, with the golden plover down 30 percent and the red grouse down by 15 percent, all driven by declining abundance of the birds’ crane fly prey.

The findings highlight the complex relationship between bog habitats, insects, and birds and the cascading ecosystem impacts of climate change, suggesting that large-scale projects to restore degraded and eroded blanket bogs could be critical in securing the future of these internationally important bird populations, alongside both water supplies and the crucial role of blanket bogs as a carbon store.

“This is one of the first studies to follow this bug-to-bird link, down the food chain, between climate change and something happening to an entire eco-system with relevance to people,” said Dr Andreas Heinemeyer from the Stockholm Environment Institute based at the University of York.

“There is a very strong relationship between the moisture of the peat and the survival of the larvae of the crane fly during summer,” Heinemeyer said. “July and August are peak times: if it is too dry, the larvae just desiccate and die and are then not available for the bird chicks the following year.”

“We might be in for big change,” he continued, explaining how the changes could affect water supplies. “Not just in connection with our birds, but our drinking water as well,” he added “If you end up being very dry as a blanket bog you store less water and your water quality seems to deteriorate as peat erodes and decomposes. So there seems to be a link, but it’s not an easy link.”It is a very messy picture as vegetation and bugs are also involved and everything works together like a jigsaw puzzle. If you change a piece, you will change others around it.”

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