A study published in the journal PLOS ONE predicts that marine species along North America’s Atlantic and Pacific continental shelves could be forced north by as much as 1,000 kilometers in response to warming seas. Researchers modeled thermal habitats for 686 invertebrate and fish species and paired them with 16 general circulation models to forecast species distribution along North America’s continental shelves according to different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. The models generally agreed that species migration was highest along the U.S., Canadian Pacific northwest, with many species migrating upwards of 1,000 kilometers under “high” greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. With some variation, the models also generally agreed that nearly all of the species under study would migrate poleward - north.
Healthy ecosystems rely on diversity to provide resilience. The more species present in a system, the better able it is to heal, restore, and adapt itself after preturbances like fishing, virus and disease, invasive species, and natural or anthropocentric habitat change among others. That rising temperatures and other habitat disruptions could force mass migration north does not bode well for ecosystem health along the shelves, and raises important ecological and sociological questions. If an invasive or pioneer species takes hold in place of species migrated north, how might the entire ecology of the shelves change? Additionally, how will industries and individuals relying on fish and other marine species for livelihood and sustenance adapt to drastically reduced or altered populations? Furthermore, could the loss of mobile species to migration cause a trophic cascade effect among other species, especially those unable to relocate and on “down” the chain to critical oxygen-exhaling, carbon-sequestering phytoplankton?