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Back to the future: using historical climate variation to project near‐term shifts in habitat suitable for coast redwood

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Studies that model the effect of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems often use climate projections from downscaled global climate models (GCMs). These simulations are generally too coarse to capture patterns of fine-scale climate variation, such as the sharp coastal energy and moisture gradients associated with wind-driven upwelling of cold water. Coastal upwelling may limit future increases in coastal temperatures, compromising GCMs' ability to provide realistic scenarios of future climate in these coastal ecosystems. Taking advantage of naturally occurring variability in the high-resolution historic climatic record, we developed multiple fine-scale scenarios of California climate that maintain coherent relationships between regional climate and coastal upwelling. We compared these scenarios against coarse resolution GCM projections at a regional scale to evaluate their temporal equivalency. We used these historically based scenarios to estimate potential suitable habitat for coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens D. Don) under 'normal' combinations of temperature and precipitation, and under anomalous combinations representative of potential future climates. We found that a scenario of warmer temperature with historically normal precipitation is equivalent to climate projected by GCMs for California by 2020-2030 and that under these conditions, climatically suitable habitat for coast redwood significantly contracts at the southern end of its current range. Our results suggest that historical climate data provide a high-resolution alternative to downscaled GCM outputs for near-term ecological forecasts. This method may be particularly useful in other regions where local climate is strongly influenced by ocean-atmosphere dynamics that are not represented by coarse-scale GCMs.

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