Climate change will have a growing impact on the extinction (or survival) of animal and plant species over the course of the century. In order to respond to future trends and proactively protect biodiversity, VITO is developing a user-friendly online tool that will allow biodiversity managers to better assess the impact of climate change.

The latest report of the IPBES – the ‘IPCC’ for global biodiversity – did not lie about it. More than a million species are currently at risk of extinction, while fifty per cent are ‘under pressure’. The causes include overuse of pesticides and other chemical substances in agriculture, the destruction of forests and other valuable ecosystems (often also for agriculture), environmental pollution and, of course, climate change. Although climate impact is not yet the biggest threat facing biodiversity, forecasts show that this could change by the end of this century. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, global warming could be the main factor affecting species survival by 2100.

What do environmentalists and conservationists need to do to proactively tackle both the current and the future threat? How can policymakers ensure the continued protection of plant and animal species, not just now but also in about ten to twenty years’ time? In short, how can our knowledge of climate and global warming contribute towards a better response to the biodiversity crisis?

Online platform

The answer: by converting this knowledge, which often consists of raw and highly complex data, into clear, useful information. That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the Sectoral Information System (SIS) to Support the Biodiversity Sector, which is being developed within the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S, the climate component of the European satellite monitoring programme). VITO is coordinating the project. ‘During the two-year project we will develop a publicly accessible online platform where users can find specific information gathered on specific variables such as species, regions and climate zones’, clarifies VITO’s Koen De Ridder.

VITO’s expertise within the project will focus mainly on climate, such as interpreting raw data, modelling, simulation and scenario extrapolation. Knowledge and experience of biodiversity will be provided by six of VITO’s cooperative partners – including the Antwerp Zoo. ‘With these six partners we are seeking to cover a large proportion of biodiversity’, says De Ridder. The work of the organisations involved centres on land animals, sea creatures, plants and specific animal species that live on sea ice (such as seals).

Grasslands, monkeys and seals

How will users soon be able to use the platform to protect or support biodiversity? De Ridder gives three specific examples: ‘One of the many cases in the platform concerns grassland management in the Baltic states. Farmers in these countries receive subsidies to keep these grasslands wild. But imagine they are suddenly faced with a severe drought: what should be done with the grasslands if that happens? And will the farmers be held accountable? The information we provide will enable authorities to adapt their policy now to what is to come.’

Another case is that of the golden-headed lion tamarin in Brazil. Deforestation and climate change have placed this species of monkey at serious risk of extinction. As part of the BioBrazil project, biologists from Antwerp Zoo are looking at how they can use climate data from the SIS platform to explore the chance of survival of the golden-headed lion tamarin. This survival is important not just for the monkeys themselves, but for the ecosystem as a whole since the monkeys play a major role in distributing plant seeds via their droppings.

‘Climate change could determine whether certain populations or entire species survive or become extinct’, states Peter Galbusera of the CRC, the Antwerp Zoo’s science team. ‘The same is true for the golden-headed lion tamarin in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which is also at risk due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation. Simulations can provide a better estimate of this risk, but this requires accurate climate data. The SIS platform will therefore be an important resource for us.’

A third case involves research into the impact of rising temperatures on the reproductive behaviour of seals in and around the Baltic Sea. De Ridder: ‘Seals give birth to their young pups on the sea ice. But if the ice continues to melt, the animals will be increasingly forced to give birth on land, where their young can fall prey to predators. By visiting our platform, authorities can find out things like where and when they should avoid destroying the sea ice by using icebreakers.’

VITO’s designation as leading contractor by the C3S is an achievement to be proud of. ‘Within the Copernicus programme there is a strong recognition that those involved in a project have an excellent understanding of what end users need, and that they will do everything they can to deliver it. In this case the conversion of raw climate data into tangible and action-oriented information’, De Ridder explains.