Extreme weather and climate events have direct impacts on ecosystems and can further trigger ecosystem disturbances, often having impacts that last longer than the event’s duration. The projected increased frequency or intensity of extreme events could thus amplify ecological impacts and reduce the biosphere’s CO2 mitigation potential, but multiple feedbacks between ecosystems and climate extremes are often not considered in risk assessments. In this Perspective, we propose a systemic framework to analyse the causal relationships between climate extremes, disturbance regimes and ecosystems, building on two broadly used perspectives: climate risk assessment and disturbance ecology. Each has strengths and limitations, as each perspective places a different — and partly disjointed — focus on the physical and ecological processes that drive high-impact ecological events. We unify these approaches into a framework (compound ecoclimatic events) that decomposes events into climatic drivers, stressors, environmental factors, impacts and their sources of variability, and further incorporates feedbacks between ecosystem processes and stressors. This framework can be used to develop ecoclimatic storylines to better understand the role of each factor in influencing high-impact events; to incorporate uncertainties associated with internal climate and ecological variability, with scenario definitions, and with epistemic uncertainties; and to quantify the human fingerprint on high-impact ecoclimatic events.
Impacts of extreme weather and climate events on ecosystems are influenced by multiple processes and interactions with ecosystem disturbances.
A systemic perspective on the causal relationships between climate extremes, disturbance regimes and ecosystems is needed for improved process understanding and attribution of impacts.
Attribution of high-impact ecological events to human activities needs to go beyond climate change attribution and include the wide range of anthropogenic influence on environmental factors that influence ecosystem vulnerability and disturbances.
Natural climate variability is an irreducible source of uncertainty in attribution and projection of extreme events that needs to be propagated to the assessment of impacts.
Storylines are a useful approach to account for the multiple uncertainties influencing high-impact ecoclimatic events and to complement current approaches in impact attribution.
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This work was partly funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (project XAIDA, Grant No. 101003469 and European Research Council (ERC) Synergy Grant ‘Understanding and Modelling the Earth System with Machine Learning (USMILE)’ Grant agreement No. 855187). M.D.M. and M.R. acknowledge ESA for funding DeepExtremes. A.B. was funded by the European Union (ERC StG, ForExD, grant agreement No. 101039567). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them. The authors thank U. Beyerle for setting up and management of forced and unforced but nudged Community Earth System Model Version 2.1.2 (CESM2) simulations. We thank A. Jézéquel for feedback on the framework proposed here.
The authors declare they have no competing interests.
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- Climate risk
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the potential for [climate change-related] adverse consequences for human or ecological systems, recognising the diversity of values and objectives associated with such systems. Risk is a function of hazard, vulnerability and exposure. Climate risk refers strictly to negative consequences of climate change, whereas positive consequences are referred to as opportunities or potential benefits; other fields treat risk as a value-neutral concept, and that the value of a given consequence might depend on the point of view.
- Compound weather and climate events
The combination of multiple drivers and/or hazards (such as droughts, heat waves, flooding and fires) that contribute to risk; compound events can be multivariate, preconditioned, temporally compounding or spatially compounding.
- Disturbance impact
The specific effects on ecosystem properties triggered by a given disturbance, such as the loss of organic matter by fires, removal or damage of organisms by hurricanes or logging, or mortality induced by droughts, floods or frost events.
- Disturbance severity
The magnitude of the impacts of a disturbance, which depends on ecosystem vulnerability.
- Ecosystem disturbance
Discrete events in time that disrupt the ecosystem, community or population structure and change resources, substrate availability or the physical environment, as defined by White and Picket; alternatively, can be defined as an event that results in biomass removal.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the presence of people; livelihoods; species or ecosystems; environmental functions, services, resources; infrastructure; or economic, social, or cultural assets in places and settings that could be adversely affected.
- Extreme climatic event
An event in which a statistically rare or unusual climatic period alters ecosystem structure and⁄or function well outside the bounds of what is considered typical or normal variability.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the potential occurrence of a natural or human-induced physical event or trend that may cause loss of life, injury, or other health impacts, as well as damage and loss to property, infrastructure, livelihoods, service provision, ecosystems and environmental resources. Hazards are based on the assessment of potential consequences of a given climate-related event or trend; climate extremes might not be hazardous if they are no negative consequences and non-extreme events might be hazardous if there are negative consequences.
- Internal climate variability
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the deviation of climate variables from a given mean state (including the occurrence of extremes and so on) at all spatial and temporal scales beyond that of individual weather events, Variability can be intrinsic, due to fluctuations of processes internal to the climate system.
- Post-disturbance recovery
The return of a disturbed system to a previous undisturbed or quasi-equilibrium state or to a new state; the time required to reach this state is the recovery time.
The propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected, encompassing various concepts that include sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt.
- Weather and climate extremes
Unusual events at a given place and time of year, usually defined by the occurrence of a value of a weather or climate variable, or combination of variables, above (or below) a threshold value near the upper (or lower) ends of the observed distribution of the variable over a reference time frame.
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Bastos, A., Sippel, S., Frank, D. et al. A joint framework for studying compound ecoclimatic events. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 333–350 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-023-00410-3