Climate change disrupts ‘the language of life’ in all types of ecosystems

A sign for a closed road protrudes from flood waters (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)

According to new research, climate change is disrupting essential chemical communication processes in all types of Earth’s ecosystems.

The opinion piece published this week is the first time researchers have demonstrated that climate change affects the interactions between organisms in different domains in similar patterns.

Chemical communication plays an essential role in ecosystems, allowing organisms to mate and interact with each other; locate predators, food and habitats; and sense their surroundings.

The opinion piece shows how alterations in temperature, carbon dioxide and pH levels – which are created as a result of climate change – can affect every step of this fundamental way in which organisms communicate with each other .

These chemical communication processes regulate interactions in terrestrial ecosystems and are essential to our environment.

Dr Christina C Roggatz, researcher in marine chemical ecology at the University of Hull and lead author of the paper, said: “This paper is a wake-up call. We are highly dependent on Earth’s ecosystems and the chemical communications that regulate them.

Climate change and global water chemistry lead to acidification threats that can disrupt the exchange of chemical information between freshwater and marine organisms

Dr Patrick FINK

“The predominantly negative effects that climate change is having on the language of life in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could have a range of far-reaching implications for the future of our planet and human well-being, for example by affecting food security and the fundamental ecosystem services that make our planet habitable.

Published today in the journal Global Change Biology, the article “Becoming nose-blind – climate change impacts on chemical communication” was co-authored by the University of Hull, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the University of Liège and the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research GmbH – UFZ.

This is an overview of existing evidence and knowledge on marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems.

Dr Patrick Fink, co-author and research group leader at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, said: “Chemical communication is the ubiquitous language of life on earth – but that is being compromised by global change.

“There are no words to talk about life underwater, so aquatic organisms ‘speak’ in chemical signals.

“But this refined ‘language’ is in jeopardy. Climate change and water chemistry on a global scale lead to acidification threats that can disrupt the exchange of chemical information between freshwater and marine organisms.

The authors also call for a systematic and universal framework approach to fill the knowledge gaps highlighted.

Dr Roggatz said: “Although a growing number of studies suggest that stressors associated with climate change cause adverse effects on communication between organisms, knowledge of the underlying mechanisms remains scarce.

“We urgently need a systematic approach to be able to compare results and fully understand the potentially disruptive impact that climate change is having on every step of this fundamental communication process. Understanding this means we are better equipped to predict and protect the future of our planet.