We’re all aware of climate change and the effects it’s having on our planet. We’re also pretty clued up on how global warming is changing our own lives and the impact a climate catastrophe could have for humans in the future. To get the big picture on climate change, read our article Climate Change: The Low Down. But, often overlooked, is the impact climate change is having on animals and wildlife around the world.
With ecosystems being damaged and destroyed, habitat loss and general changes to the environment that animals live in, the challenges faced by wildlife can be both significant and varied.
We’re now more informed about these issues with the impacts of human-induced climate change being observed in every aspect of life. It’s becoming more clear that this is the most significant and far-reaching current environmental threat. In the last few decades, natural scientists and nature conservationists have been observing marked changes in the condition and distribution of wildlife on a global scale. These changes are occurring at rates that are higher than expected for a species, habitat or ecosystem, and such observations are providing real, clear evidence that climate change is already having a devastating impact on our environment.
In addition to their intrinsic value, species play essential roles in ecosystems, which in turn provide vital services to humans. Climate change interacts with threats such as habitat loss and overharvesting to further exacerbate species declines. The decline of species and ecosystems can then accelerate climate change, creating a feedback loop that further exacerbates the situation.
Global warming has the potential to cause extinctions in a majority of the world’s especially valuable ecosystems. With that in mind, we’re going to look into some of the impacts that climate change is having on wildlife and animals all over the planet.
Our planet is warming faster than at any time in the past 10,000 years. With these changes, species have to adapt to new climate patterns such as variations in rainfall and longer, warmer summers. Global warming resulting from human emissions of greenhouse gases. The consequences include habitat loss, shifts in climatic conditions and in habitats that surpass migrational capabilities and altered competitive relationships. To find out more about how humans are impacting animal habitats, read our post What Drives Deforestation?
Evidence suggests that the warming of the past century already has resulted in significant ecological changes, including changes in growing seasons, species ranges, and patterns of seasonal breeding.
The fate of many species in a rapidly warming world will likely depend on their ability to migrate away from increasingly less favorable climatic conditions to new areas that meet their physical, biological, and climate needs.
WWF scientists have estimated that most species on this planet (including plants) will have to “move” faster than 1,000 metres per year if they are to keep within the climate zone which they need for survival. Many species will not be able to redistribute themselves fast enough to keep up with the coming changes. These species, as far as we know given present knowledge, may well become extinct.
Depending on a species response to the warming, especially their ability to migrate to new sites, habitat change in many ecoregions has the potential to result in catastrophic species loss. Global warming is likely to have a winnowing effect on ecosystems, filtering out species that are not highly mobile and favouring a less diverse, more “weedy” vegetation and ecosystems that are dominated by pioneer species, and invasive species.
Greenhouse gas emissions are intensifying climate change and making certain habitats increasingly hostile to live in. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity 5, climate change may affect plant growth and production by promoting the spread of pests and diseases, increasing exposure to heat stress and changing rainfall patterns, and encouraging soil erosion due to stronger winds.
Factory farming can create a range of pollution problems, fragmenting and even destroying natural habitats. This can drive out or even kill the animals and plants that inhabit them. The range of wastes from factory farms can be particularly problematic, leaking into water sources and, in the worst cases, leaving vast “dead zones”, where few species can survive. Some of the nitrogen will also become gaseous, turning into ammonia, for instance, which creates problems such as water acidification and ozone layer depletion.
Further still, the natural world’s ability to offset damaging carbon and toxic pollutants is being decimated. Climate change affects the ability of plant species to sequester carbon, turning carbon sinks into carbon sources. Warmer temperatures are also increasingly leading to tree death caused by disease, drought conditions and an upsurge in the number and severity of forest fires, which leads to an increase in carbon emissions.
Species are already being impacted by anthropogenic climate change, and its rapid onset is limiting the ability of many species to adapt to their environments. Climate change is currently affecting 19% of species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, increasing the likelihood of their extinction. The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) is the first mammal reported to have gone extinct as a direct result of climate change. Previously found only on the island of Bramble Cay in the Great Barrier Reef, its habitat was destroyed by rising sea levels.
Corals form one of the most biodiverse ecosystems, yet they are among the most rapidly declining species groups due to mass bleaching, disease and die-offs caused by rising ocean temperatures, as well ocean acidification. Meeting the Paris Agreement’s target of less than 2°C rise in global temperatures is essential for the survival of coral reefs.
Invasive alien species are among the main causes of biodiversity loss and species extinctions, and the proliferation of invasive species is often exacerbated by climate change. Native to South America, the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) can now be found in parts of every continent except Antarctica, and it is expected to increase its range as the climate warms. The hyacinth deoxygenates rivers, killing fish populations, which in turn reduces income and food supply for local communities.
Altered Food Chains
The effects of climate change on even the smallest species can threaten ecosystems and other species across the food chain. For example, increased sea-ice melt and ocean acidification in the Arctic Ocean is reducing krill populations, threatening the survival of whales, penguins and seals that depend on krill as a primary food source.
Because species lowest in the food chain are often among the first impacted by climate change, the full impacts of species loss may not be seen for decades. The types and severity of diseases that affect crops are also changing. For example, incidences of Fusarium ear blight on wheat are increasing due to a rise in temperature and rainfall. These can produce mycotoxins that make wheat inedible and cause crop losses of up to 60%.
Food chains are a delicate balance between species, maintaining sufficient population levels for the full spectrum across the food chain to survive. This balance is especially important in our oceans where overfishing is having a devastating impact on aquatic food chains. If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, check out our article Recapping ‘Seaspiracy’: 10 Horrific Takeaways That Changed Our Perspective on Seafood Forever.
Changes in temperature, and the other impacts of climate change, are becoming more apparent, and we’re already seeing the effects all over the world. For example, some islands no longer exist because of rising sea levels, natural disasters – like floods, hurricanes and tornadoes – are occurring more frequently, more animal species are going extinct every year due to the effects of climate change on the ecosystems and habitats they live in.
Almost every species of animal, on the lands, in the oceans and rivers or in the skies are being negatively impacted by climate change. We’re going to go through some specific examples of animals that face significant challenges in a warming world.
Giant Panda Bears
This two-toned tree enthusiast, and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) trademark bear, feeds exclusively on bamboo. But climate change is reducing the amount of bamboo that grows in these animals’ natural habitats in China. Apart from being the bears’ staple diet, bamboo also provides them with shelter from the elements. So the effects of climate change have a big impact on the well-being of the giant panda bear.
These floppy-eared mammals are particularly affected by high temperatures. This is because they need to drink a lot of fresh water to survive – and even more when the weather is warmer!
So, climate change and global warming make it more difficult for elephants to get all the water they need every day. Warmer conditions also make it easier for invasive plants to thrive and outgrow the elephants’ regular food sources such as bamboo leaves and bananas.
These birds live on the Antarctic continent and feed on krill – shrimp-like creatures that live under the ice sheets. Climate change is causing the ice in this area to melt. And, as the ice melts, krill populations decrease and the penguins have to migrate from their natural habitat to find alternative food sources. This makes it harder for them to settle down and mate during the breeding season because they sometimes run short of food.
The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal and it’s facing a speedy decline in population numbers in the face of climate change. It’s currently listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species. In some areas, the cheetahs’ prey populations are declining. As a result of this, cheetahs have had to change their diets and prey on other animals that live in the same environment. And, a rise in temperatures has even affected this big cat’s ability to reproduce.
Some studies have shown that many male cheetahs have lowered testosterone levels. In some instances, cheetah sperm counts were seen to be almost ten times lower than your average house cat. And scientists believe that these findings are due to the higher temperatures caused by global warming. Because the number of cheetahs in the wild is declining steadily, conservationists are calling on the global community to study these animals, and gain a deeper understanding of their behaviours.
Climate change and global warming reduce the amount of Arctic sea ice. This ice is important because it’s what polar bears live on and where they hunt for seals. So, as the amount of ice decreases, this means that polar bears have less access to food, and their habitats are becoming smaller.
Green turtles, like many animal species, are sensitive to the changes in temperature caused by global warming. And, because a baby turtle’s sex depends on the temperature of the sand where their egg is laid, climate change has an impact on these turtles’ development too. The warmer areas produce female turtles.
So, with climate change causing an increase in temperatures, more females than males are hatching. And this reduces the number of male green turtles around. This may affect the population growth of green turtles in the future since it means fewer mating partners for female turtles.
How Can Disaster Be Averted?
Efforts to conserve species and mitigate the impacts of climate change require an approach that includes meeting climate targets, conserving and securing habitats, and helping species adapt. There’s several things that can help re-balance the planet’s ecosystems and reduce the impact climate change is having on all species.
Reduce CO2 Emissions
Long-term and cohesive actions to meet Paris Agreement targets for emissions reductions can prevent temperature increases from exceeding the critical 2° threshold. This will have the greatest impact on reducing the impacts of climate change on species and ensuring ecosystems continue to provide habitats for species and their wide-ranging services to people.
Help Nature To Help People
By functioning as carbon sinks, ecosystems like forests, wetlands and tundra combat climate change and play a key role in helping countries meet their Paris Agreement targets. Restoring ecosystems and reforesting in biodiversity-friendly ways with climate-change resilient species can further increase their effectiveness. Nature can also help people adapt.
For example, conserving coastal species such as mangroves and coral provides an ongoing source of food and supports livelihoods, while also providing protection from tsunamis, storm surges, and other extreme weather caused by climate change.
Help Species Cope
Species are the building blocks of ecosystems, and reducing the risks to species posed by climate change is critical. Sound conservation responses include helping species adapt to shifting climates and preparing strategies for coping with extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and droughts.
Minimising non-climate stressors is essential for increasing species’ future resilience to climate change. Humans’ responses to climate change, including changing land use (e.g. planting biofuels) and building hard infrastructure (e.g. wind turbines and dams), may have negative impacts on species if biodiversity is not considered.
Make Use of Conservation Tools
A variety of useful conservation tools are available. The IUCN Red List provides up-to-date information on species’ threat statuses, while the IUCN Species Survival Commission offers guidelines for assessing species’ vulnerability to climate change.
The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) provides basic risk screening on biodiversity, enabling governments and businesses to mitigate their impacts on species and biodiversity. The US Army, for example, uses IBAT to better understand how potential bases might affect biodiversity.
We all want a cleaner and safer world to live in, and animals and wildlife are no different. The difference is that humans are causing climate change that affects all species and humans are the ones that can implement solutions to reduce the impact. It’s our duty to protect endangered species, prevent extinction and limit the negative impacts of climate change before it’s too late.
On an individual level, we can all take small steps to reducing our carbon footprint, waste and use of non-biodegradable materials such as plastic. At Kinsume, we’re on a mission to help the environment by planting trees with every purchase on our platform. To read more about our eco efforts, check out our post Planting Trees For The Future.
To get easy tips on how to become more eco-friendly, check out our Green Living Series – full of great ideas and inspiration from content creators in our community.