Unchecked carbon emissions could jeopardize plants, animals in world’s most vital habitats

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer
April 11, 2018, 9:30:27 AM EDT

If carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked, half of the plant and animal species in the world’s most important natural places are at risk of local extinction by the turn of the century, according to a new study conducted by the University of East Anglia (UEA), the James Cook University (JCU) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

If little human effort is put into diminishing carbon emissions, there could be 4.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. While 4.5 degrees isn’t the worst-case scenario possible, it was the most extreme case analyzed by this study.

Albatross

This Dec. 3, 2016, photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows the world’s oldest known seabird, tending to an egg she laid, with her mate, at Midway Atoll. She was incubating an egg at the same nest she uses each year with her mate. She’s believed to be 66 years old. She’s also the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild. (Dan Clark/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

Researchers at UEA in Norwich, England, JCU in Queensland, Australia, and the WWF conducted the study based on projected climate change scenarios. In order to analyze how different species would be affected, they looked at 2 degrees of heating and 4.5 degrees of heating scenarios.

“[The study] looked at the distribution of the species currently and then it incorporates future climate change into that and it comes out with a model of where the species might exist in the future,” said Nikhil Advani, a lead specialist on climate, communities and biodiversity at the WWF.

The study focused on nearly 80,000 plant and animal species in 35 regions that Advani described as “global biodiversity hot spots” including areas such as the Amazon, the Galapagos and the Miombo Woodlands in Southern Africa.

In addition, increased average temperatures and more erratic rainfall could become the “new normal.” Significantly less rainfall in the Mediterranean, Madagascar and the Cerrado-Pantanal in Argentina would put stress on the species that live there, including African elephants, Sundarbans tigers and marine turtles.

African elephants, who need to drink 250 to 300 liters of water per day, would face pressure on their water supply. The Sundarbans tigers could see breeding grounds reduced by 96 percent due to sea-level rise. Marine turtles could see fewer males due to temperature-induced sex assignment of eggs.

In this modeling study, researchers couldn’t account for factors such as unpredictable evolutionary responses to climate change, explains Advani. Evolutionary changes occur over thousands or millions of years and global warming has only been documented for just over 100 years.

“It’s a very unpredictable thing, we don’t know how species are going to change over time,” Advani said.

While this study was looking at specifically future impacts, what could happen by the end of the century, it’s important to note that climate change is already happening. “We’re already seeing severe droughts across the world, we’re seeing flooding, we’re seeing rises in temperature,” Advani said. “The arctic just recorded its second lowest winter sea ice extent.”

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The Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund is working to reduce the vulnerability of wildlife to changes in climate. In 2017, projects in Australia, India and Russia were funded to aid different species in enduring conditions of rapid change.

In Australia, artificial nests were built as a way to increase the reproductive rate of the shy albatross, which is experiencing population declines due to higher temperatures and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events.

The project in India focused on protecting the habitat of the red panda. The team worked with communities in the Khangchendzonga Landscape to minimize habitat encroachment for firewood collection, develop a plan for forest fire management and regulate the extraction of wild plants.

Red panda

One of two young red panda cubs born at the Philadelphia Zoo makes its debut, in Philadelphia, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. Red pandas are considered endangered in the wild and are native to the mountains of central China, Nepal and northern Myanmar. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In Russia, a project was launched to move walrus carcasses away from “haulout” areas where they congregate as a way to keep polar bears and other predators away from them. The carcasses are being transported to “feeding zones” which attract polar bears and keep them away from the haulout locations. Preliminary results suggest that walrus mortality at the haulout locations has already declined significantly.

Advani will soon be selecting new projects to fund that help animals adapt to climate change impacts in locations around the world.

The study shows that the most effective way to protect against species loss is to keep global temperature rise as low as possible. The Paris Agreement aims to keep a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees C. While that decrease in temperature rise will reduce impacts, there would be even greater improvements the more the global warming temperature is reduced.

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