Research highlight

Climate change: Measuring ecosystem disruption caused by marine heatwaves

Nature

August 6, 2020

Marine heatwaves can displace thermal habitats by tens to thousands of kilometres, reports a study in Nature this week. This displacement represents the distance that an organism would have to travel to escape potentially stressful temperatures. The findings open new avenues of research to understand the potential impacts of anomalously warm ocean temperatures on marine species.

Marine heatwaves are distinct periods of unusually warm ocean temperatures that can cause dramatic changes to ocean ecosystems, as inhabitants find themselves in waters that are warmer than they are accustomed to. Much of the research into these events focuses on the local impact to species such as corals, but does not take into account mobile organisms (fish, for example) that can travel to find their preferred conditions.

To understand how species may have to redistribute under marine heatwave conditions, Michael Jacox and colleagues analyse thermal displacements associated with marine heat waves using data from 1982 to 2019. They calculate the minimum distance that a species would have to travel away from a marine heatwave to reach a habitat at their preferred temperature. This displacement varied substantially: in the tropics, where temperature gradients are small, the thermal displacement could exceed 2,000 km; in regions with sharp gradients, such as western boundary currents, displacement might be only a few tens of kilometres.

The authors note that the short-term displacement of thermal habitats is comparable to shifts associated with long-term warming trends, and may have the potential to drive rapid redistributions of marine species.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2534-z

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