Climate change in Australian tropical rainforests: an impending environmental catastrophe

Stephen E. Williams, Elizabeth E. Bolitho, Samantha Fox


It is now widely accepted that global climate change is affecting many ecosystems around the globe and that its impact is increasing rapidly. Many studies predict that impacts will consist largely of shifts in latitudinal and altitudinal distributions. However, we demonstrate that the impacts of global climate change in the tropical rainforests of northeastern Australia have the potential to result in many extinctions. We develop bioclimatic models of spatial distribution for the regionally endemic rainforest vertebrates and use these models to predict the effects of climate warming on species distributions. Increasing temperature is predicted to result in significant reduction or complete loss of the core environment of all regionally endemic vertebrates. Extinction rates caused by the complete loss of core environments are likely to be severe, nonlinear, with losses increasing rapidly beyond an increase of 2°C, and compounded by other climate–related impacts. Mountain ecosystems around the world, such as the Australian Wet Tropics bioregion, are very diverse, often with high levels of restricted endemism, and are therefore important areas of biodiversity. The results presented here suggest that these systems are severely threatened by climate change.

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