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People standing on a rocky beach.

Coastal ecosystem being destabilized by climate change, Oregon State research shows

By Steve Lundeberg

Rocky intertidal communities (mussels, sea stars, anemones, and more) are losing resilience and biodiversity under the pressures of climate change.

Ecological communities on the Oregon coast are being subtly destabilized by the pressures of climate change despite giving an appearance of stress resistance, new research from the Department of Integrative Biology shows.

The findings are important because assessing and understanding how plants, animals and other life forms respond to a warming planet is critical to human welfare, according to the study's lead author Bruce Menge, a Distinguished Professor in the Department.

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that ecological communities in Oregon’s rocky intertidal zone have grown less stable for at least a decade, though their structure and the organisms that comprise them have basically stayed the same.

“Climate change is threatening to destabilize ecological communities,” said Menge, who has been conducting research on the coast for four decades.

“On land, extreme wildfires illustrate how gradual changes in temperature or rainfall can eventually lead to catastrophic events,” Menge said. “In the ocean environment, novel occurrences like marine heatwaves and disease epidemics are the new and acute threats being added to the gradual increases in water temperature and ocean acidification commonly associated with climate change.”

The research doesn’t necessarily indicate that the iconic rocky regions of Oregon’s shoreline are nearing an ecological tipping point where sudden, often irreversible ecosystem changes happen, the scientists say. But the findings aren’t good news either.

“Resilient systems can quickly bounce back to their original configurations after a disturbance,” said Sarah Gravem, a postdoctoral researcher on the study. “Rocky intertidal systems are highly dynamic but Oregon’s has begun to show signs of losing its resilience, likely in response to unprecedented stresses related to acute warming events."

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