Climate Change Impacts To Nature And Wildlife

In a study published by Nature, human-induced climate change could result in the extinction of more than a million terrestrial species by 2050. The study looked at six biodiversity-rich areas around the world and estimated that 15 to 37 percent of the terrestrial species would be gone, depending on the rate of global warming.

Dr. Terry L. Root of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University in California, an organization involved in international environmental assessment, negotiation, remediation, and protection, conducted a study that provided concrete evidence that global warming is affecting the world's plants and animals by forcing them to shift their ranges. It is also affecting the timing of spring-related events such as egg laying and migration.

The Pied flycatcher, an avian species found in Europe, for example, is not arriving early enough in the spring because it is cued by length of day when to migrate. The problem is that spring is coming earlier to its migration destination due to warming temperatures. The earlier warming is causing its major food source, caterpillars, to become abundant earlier because their life cycle is governed by temperature, instead of length of day. Therefore, the two species are out of natural sync because they are governed by two different cues—one day length, the other temperature. When the bird migrates, its food source has already peaked, forcing the bird to nest faster in order to have something to eat. Dr. Root believes that eventually temperatures will rise high enough that it will leave the bird with little to eat once it has migrated because the caterpillars will already by gone.

This is especially pertinent to the natural world because as species adjust separately to global warming, natural established communities will have to adjust in order to survive. If adjustments take them out of sync concerning predator-prey species in the food chain, it will cause ecosystems to weaken and fail.

Dr. Root points out another serious issue connected to global warming: shifts in range. "Because habitats are quite fragmented these days, species will probably have a lot of difficulty shifting their ranges. It will be harder for species to cross farm fields, freeways, or cities. So if there is no other way for a species to shift, it could go extinct if it cannot adapt to a hotter climate. Adaptation is certainly possible, but not on the time scale that we are talking about here. Also, if the predator can shift and the prey cannot, there could be problems for the predator to feed itself."

According to Steve Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, "The best way to help species that are threatened by climate change is to stop using the atmosphere as a free sewer. This is a global problem and must be solved at a global level. The Kyoto Protocol [a voluntary international agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] is not perfect, but it's a first step. It is embarrassing that the country that has poured more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other countries put together [the United States]—even those with very large populations (China, for example)—is not doing anything about it. Each of us can do our part—drive hybrid cars; use fluorescent bulbs; when replacing furnaces, water heaters, appliances, windows, and roofs, replace them with the most energy efficient alternatives. But we need to put pressure on our policy makers to start negotiations on a global level about global warming."

Dr. Root also says, "A study has shown that without action to halt global warming, economists predict that the world as a whole will be ten times as rich by 2100, and people on average will be five times as well off. Adding on the costs of tackling warming would postpone this target by a mere two years. A two-year lag seems to me to be a pretty inexpensive planetary insurance policy!

"We need to continue to look for changes in the behaviors and cycles of animals and plants. It would be nice to have some studies that look at elevational transects up mountains and at different latitudes. I am currently looking at migration data and trying to understand how climate—primarily wind—has and could influence migration times."

Several species have already been identified as being in peril as a result of global warming. The polar bear is one of those. According to the Sierra Club, a well-established grassroots environmental organization whose goal is to protect communities, wild places, and the environment, the Arctic is on the front lines of global warming. Warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the Earth, climate change poses an extreme danger to the Arctic—a place where wildlife and nature have formed a delicate balance. So tenuous is the ecosystem that even small changes in temperature can cause devastating effects to the life within it. The IPCC, which also recognizes the polar region's unique vulnerability, warns that the severity of changes to habitat and its detrimental impacts to wildlife that are occurring

A polar bear mother and two cubs on the Beaufort Sea coast in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

today are an early warning of the impacts that other wildlife will also face. They predict that other polar species such as walrus, seals, and penguins may soon find themselves in the same precarious situation as the polar bear.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) indicate that polar bears are currently imperiled because of a warming Arctic climate. Studies by the FWS have documented plunging survival rates for cubs, falling body weights for adults, strandings on land for bears that are used to hunting for prey on vast expanses of ice, and even incidences of drowning in the oceans where ample, thick sea ice used to be. A report published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2008 indicates that America's polar bear populations could completely disappear by 2050 under these progressing conditions.

This threat is so great that the polar bear has now been added as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the first time the U.S. government has added a species to the list because of the negative effects of global warming.

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