Testing Paradigms of Ecosystem Change under Climate Warming in Antarctica

Melbourne-Thomas, Jessica; Constable, Andrew; Wotherspoon, Simon; Raymond, Ben
February 2013
PLoS ONE;Feb2013, Vol. 8 Issue 2, p1
Academic Journal
Antarctic marine ecosystems have undergone significant changes as a result of human activities in the past and are now responding in varied and often complicated ways to climate change impacts. Recent years have seen the emergence of large-scale mechanistic explanations–or “paradigms of change”–that attempt to synthesize our understanding of past and current changes. In many cases, these paradigms are based on observations that are spatially and temporally patchy. The West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), one of Earth’s most rapidly changing regions, has been an area of particular research focus. A recently proposed mechanistic explanation for observed changes in the WAP region relates changes in penguin populations to variability in krill biomass and regional warming. While this scheme is attractive for its simplicity and chronology, it may not account for complex spatio-temporal processes that drive ecosystem dynamics in the region. It might also be difficult to apply to other Antarctic regions that are experiencing some, though not all, of the changes documented for the WAP. We use qualitative network models of differing levels of complexity to test paradigms of change for the WAP ecosystem. Importantly, our approach captures the emergent effects of feedback processes in complex ecological networks and provides a means to identify and incorporate uncertain linkages between network elements. Our findings highlight key areas of uncertainty in the drivers of documented trends, and suggest that a greater level of model complexity is needed in devising explanations for ecosystem change in the Southern Ocean. We suggest that our network approach to evaluating a recent and widely cited paradigm of change for the Antarctic region could be broadly applied in hypothesis testing for other regions and research fields.


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