Coastal research: climate change and species invasion

Dr Christian Buschbaum, marine ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Coastal research

Wadden Sea

Invasive species

Around the globe, coasts and their communities are currently changing more rapidly than at almost any time in Earth’s history. This is due to anthropogenic factors, which on the one hand have individual effects, but which are also mutually reinforcing. Global climate change also means that species are altering their distribution areas, resulting in psychrophilic organisms increasingly being pushed to the polar regions, while heat-adapted species are spreading in the temperate latitudes. As a result, species interactions are also changing: today, entire ecosystems are functioning differently than they did a few decades ago. Changes in ecosystems are natural. However, the tremendous speed at which they are currently occurring makes it difficult for organisms to develop adaptation strategies and successfully adjust to the changing environmental parameters.

Added to this, there is globalisation, which doesn’t stop underwater. Ships transporting goods from continent to continent introduce non-native species, which are carried from their area of origin to new coasts in the ballast water or attached to the ships’ hulls. Here, the newcomers can establish themselves if the living conditions are suitable.

Today, on the North Sea coast, one or two invasive species are discovered every year. These frequently originate in Pacific waters – regions that are warmer and with whose coastal states we trade extensively. As such, the combination of climate change and globalisation is an important driver of change in our coasts. We are investigating how native communities adjust to both of these factors, what adaptations they are capable of, and to what extent new interactions are emerging – from individual species, all the way up to entire coastal systems.