Paul C. Pritchard
Despite the societal infrastructure that we have built up over the years, humankind is still deeply dependent on the environment around us and the diverse services the environment provides. In fact, economists estimate that the natural environment, in addition to its intrinsic worth, provides goods and services to society that are comparable in value to those that we produce for ourselves. Thus, the environment cleans the air we breathe, purifies the water that we drink, generates compounds that make up our medicines, assists in growing the food and fiber that we depend on, and provides the beauty that inspires our souls and enriches our vacations. Everywhere people live, the environment is drawn upon and shapes our lives.
In turn, each region's environment has been shaped and determined by the climate in which it has evolved and the region's connections to the broader world that exist through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. While some climatic zones spread over vast regions, others occupy very small niches, sometimes at the tops of mountains or the edges of continents where an ecosystem has precious little space to maneuver with more robust ecosystems occupying more space at their warmer edge and their inability to relocate if conditions change.
And now comes human-induced climate change — at a pace more rapid that has been experienced since at least the end of the last ice age and of a magnitude that may well exceed that degree of change, but on the warm side. Within a century or two, climatic conditions have the potential, ifwe do not act aggressively, to change the natural world more than it has changed in millions of years. The magnitude of the impact of these human-induced changes on ecosystems in every corner of the Earth is taking the world into a new age, an age of the end of evolution as the driver of species change and development. From classic 'mega-fauna' such as the polar bear to the smallest worm, from the great boreal forests to the smallest orchid, the significance of what is occurring is almost beyond comprehension, given the limited experiences of most of humanity. Yet these changes will further affect all life, including mankind. Chapter 12 by noted ecologist Dr Anthony Janetos gives an indication of the global pervasiveness of the changes that are underway.
Global climate change and the resulting changes to ecosystems are so vast, however, that its importance may be easier to comprehend by assessing the impacts on one region or on one species. The polar regions, like deserts, are excellent study areas because of their fragility and of the minimal human disruption, at least to date; although remote, however, their condition and influence are critical to life as we know it. In Chapter 13, Dr Eric Kasischke and Dr F. Stuart Chapin III describe the increasing vulnerability of Alaska's boreal forest as a result of climate change, especially due to increased pest infestations and increased likelihood of fire. In Chapter 14, Dr Andrew Derocher considers the impact of the warming Arctic on polar bears, which live in a food chain that depends on their environment remaining cold. We seldom think of the vulnerability of Arctic ecosystems and wild species because they are perceived as massive and self-reliant. But the opposite is in fact reality — each depends on a very narrow range of conditions to keep the balance and provide the conditions on which they depend.
These three chapters, while providing many insights, can only touch on the real magnitude of the devastating consequences that climate change is likely to induce — and in many cases has already started to induce. The recent assessment of the IPCC cites hundreds of indications that climate change is already adversely impacting the world's ecosystems and wildlife. As Nobelist Paul Crutzen has said, we are creating the Anthropocene', a new epoch whose conditions we can only roughly predict, but which will surely be very different than the past, and thus, almost certainly, very disruptive to not only the environment, but to society.
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