The ecological role of climate extremes: current understanding and future prospects


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1. Climate extremes, such as severe drought, heat waves and periods of heavy rainfall, can have profound consequences for ecological systems and for human welfare. Global climate change is expected to increase both the frequency and the intensity of climate extremes and there is an urgent need to understand their ecological consequences.

2. Major challenges for advancing our understanding of the ecological consequences of climate extremes include setting a climatic baseline to facilitate the statistical determination of when climate conditions are extreme, having sufficient knowledge of ecological systems so that extreme ecological responses can be identified, and finally, being able to attribute a climate extreme as the driver of an extreme ecological response, defined as an extreme climatic event (ECE).

3. The papers in this issue represent a cross-section of the emerging field of climate extremes research, including an examination of the palaeo-ecological record to assess patterns and drivers of extreme ecological responses in the late Quaternary, experiments in grasslands assessing a range of ecological responses and the role of ecotypic variation in determining responses to climate extremes, and the quantification of the ecological consequences of a recent ECE in the desert Southwest of the USA.

4.Synthesis. The papers in this Special Feature suggest that although the occurrence of ECEs may be common in palaeo-ecological and observational studies, studies in which climate extremes have been experimentally imposed often do not result in ecological responses outside the bounds of normal variability of a system. Thus, ECEs occur much less frequently than their potential drivers and even less frequently than observational studies suggest. Future research is needed to identify the types and time-scales of climate extremes that result in ECEs, the potential for interactions among different types of climate changes and extremes, and the role of genetic, species and trait diversity in determining ecological responses and their evolutionary consequences. These research priorities require the development of alternative research approaches to impose realistic climate extremes on a broad range of organisms and ecosystems.