When did you realize you work on climate change?

Some ecologists start their careers planning to study climate change, and others make a decision to pivot towards that line of research. But something I find fascinating is that there are ecologists, myself included, who didn’t necessarily set out to study climate change, but who are accidental climate change biologists. To give just one example: if you work on a time series on natural populations, communities, or ecosystems that extends more than a few years, chances are you’ve found that climate change is now a part of what you’re studying.

I’ve thought about this over the years as projects we work on that started out as basic research into host-parasite interactions end up relating to climate change. Some links are obvious—wanting to understand how temperature influences host-parasite interactions leads pretty naturally to thinking about how climate change will influence host-parasite interactions. Some links are less obvious—for example, we wondered whether the light environment might be influencing when and where we saw parasite outbreaks. As I recall, our initial interest in this was not related to climate change. But lakes are getting browner, in part due climate change, so any work we do on how lake light levels influence disease naturally links with climate change. And we now have some data on host-parasite interactions in lakes that spans 1-2 decades. Once you’re into decadal time scales, you have to consider the impact of climate change on what you’re seeing.

I’ve also thought about this in terms of some projects I didn’t work on. When I started grad school, one of the projects I was thinking of working on related to what was going on under the ice in lakes in winter, and how things like snow cover influenced that. So, when I saw news articles about a new study showing that there will be an “extensive loss of lake ice…within the next generation”, I thought back to those grad school plans to work on lake ice & snow cover. My recollection is that my interest in that project was mainly wanting to understand the basic biology of lakes, but clearly it would have ended up being a study of climate change if I’d pursued it.

Based on conversations with colleagues, I know I’m not alone in coming to realize that I am an accidental climate change biologist.

So, I’m curious: for my fellow accidental climate change scientists, when did you realize you were studying climate change?

5 thoughts on “When did you realize you work on climate change?

  1. Via Twitter:

  2. I love the question, Meghan. My story seems common. I’ve always been interested in historical ecology, using whatever historical data sources are available for assessing long-term ecological change. On Vancouver Island, prescribed fire by First Nations (followed by suppression) and more recently suburbanization seemed the dominant drivers of change over decadal/century timescales. But once I started studying a mountainside of mature forest in southern Quebec, climate change seemed key, and what do you know, as predicted by the warming hypothesis, species distributions had been moving upslope in recent decades. So now many individual projects are inspired by understanding questions related to climate change impacts (e.g., what other factors might constrain upward elevational distribution shifts? how do spatially variable phenological responses (flowering) influence potential gene flow?). In other words, it’s now a dominant theme that just seems to have happened on its own.

  3. I was lucky to work on a few long-term wildlife population studies early in my career in the late 90s and early 2000s, so we naturally examined the effects of variation in climate on demographics. It make me value and cherish long-term studies right from the start.

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