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As global climate change accelerates, one of the most urgent tasks for the coming decades is to develop accurate predictions about biological responses to guide the effective protection of biodiversity. Predictive models in biology provide a means for scientists to project changes to species and ecosystems in response to disturbances such as climate change. Most current predictive models, however, exclude important biological mechanisms such as demography, dispersal, evolution, and species interactions. These biological mechanisms have been shown to be important in mediating past and present responses to climate change. Thus, current modeling efforts do not provide sufficiently accurate predictions. Despite the many complexities involved, biologists are rapidly developing tools that include the key biological processes needed to improve predictive accuracy. The biggest obstacle to applying these more realistic models is that the data needed to inform them are almost always missing. We suggest ways to fill this growing gap between model sophistication and information to predict and prevent the most damaging aspects of climate change for life on Earth.
On the basis of empirical and theoretical evidence, we identify six biological mechanisms that commonly shape responses to climate change yet are too often missing from current predictive models: physiology; demography, life history, and phenology; species interactions; evolutionary potential and population differentiation; dispersal, colonization, and range dynamics; and responses to environmental variation. We prioritize the types of information needed to inform each of these mechanisms and suggest proxies for data that are missing or difficult to collect. We show that even for well-studied species, we often lack critical information that would be necessary to apply more realistic, mechanistic models. Consequently, data limitations likely override the potential gains in accuracy of more realistic models. Given the enormous challenge of collecting this detailed information on millions of species around the world, we highlight practical methods that promote the greatest gains in predictive accuracy. Trait-based approaches leverage sparse data to make more general inferences about unstudied species. Targeting species with high climate sensitivity and disproportionate ecological impact can yield important insights about future ecosystem change. Adaptive modeling schemes provide a means to target the most important data while simultaneously improving predictive accuracy.
Strategic collections of essential biological information will allow us to build generalizable insights that inform our broader ability to anticipate species’ responses to climate change and other human-caused disturbances. By increasing accuracy and making uncertainties explicit, scientists can deliver improved projections for biodiversity under climate change together with characterizations of uncertainty to support more informed decisions by policymakers and land managers. Toward this end, a globally coordinated effort to fill data gaps in advance of the growing climate-fueled biodiversity crisis offers substantial advantages in efficiency, coverage, and accuracy. Biologists can take advantage of the lessons learned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s development, coordination, and integration of climate change projections. Climate and weather projections were greatly improved by incorporating important mechanisms and testing predictions against global weather station data. Biology can do the same. We need to adopt this meteorological approach to predicting biological responses to climate change to enhance our ability to mitigate future changes to global biodiversity and the services it provides to humans.
New biological models are incorporating the realistic processes underlying biological responses to climate change and other human-caused disturbances. However, these more realistic models require detailed information, which is lacking for most species on Earth. Current monitoring efforts mainly document changes in biodiversity, rather than collecting the mechanistic data needed to predict future changes. We describe and prioritize the biological information needed to inform more realistic projections of species’ responses to climate change. We also highlight how trait-based approaches and adaptive modeling can leverage sparse data to make broader predictions. We outline a global effort to collect the data necessary to better understand, anticipate, and reduce the damaging effects of climate change on biodiversity.