Climate change, a global crisis, is poised to push species over their survival tipping points rather abruptly as the geographic range of these species face unprecedented temperature levels. These findings come from a groundbreaking study spearheaded by a researcher at University College London.
Published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the study has provided crucial predictions on when and where species worldwide are likely to encounter dangerously high temperatures due to climate change.
An international team of researchers from UCL, University of Cape Town, University of Connecticut, and University at Buffalo made this possible by examining data from an extensive list of more than 35,000 animal species.
This list included a diverse range of species, including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, corals, fish, cephalopods, plankton, and seagrasses. The data covered all continents and ocean basins and was studied alongside climate projections running up to 2100.
The researchers’ primary focus was on determining when areas within each species’ geographic range would cross a crucial threshold of thermal exposure.
They defined this as a period of five consecutive years where temperatures consistently surpass the most extreme monthly temperature experienced by a species across its geographic range over recent history (1850-2014).
Crossing this thermal exposure threshold doesn’t spell instant doom for the species, but it certainly rings alarm bells. There is no substantial evidence that these species could survive the higher temperatures. This means that many species could face an abrupt loss of habitat due to future climate change.
The results revealed a worrying trend. For many animals, the thermal exposure threshold is likely to be crossed within the same decade for much of their geographic range.
“Climate change isn’t likely to make environments gradually more challenging for animals to survive in. Rather, large portions of their geographic range are likely to become unfamiliarly hot in a short span of time,” said study lead author Dr. Alex Pigot.
“While some animals may endure these higher temperatures, many others will need to relocate to cooler regions or evolve to adapt, something they likely can’t achieve within such short timeframes.”
The study also underscored the devastating impact of global warming. If the planet warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius, 15 percent of studied species will be at risk of experiencing unfamiliarly hot temperatures across at least 30 percent of their existing geographic range in a single decade. However, this risk doubles to 30 percent of species at 2.5 degrees of warming.
“Our study is a stark reminder of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to alleviate the harmful effects climate change is inflicting on animals and plants, and to avert a massive extinction crisis,” said Dr. Pigot.
The findings from this study could aid in directing conservation efforts by providing an early warning system to pinpoint when and where particular animals are likely to be at risk.
“Previously, we had snapshots showing the impact of climate change. But now, our data is more like a film, where you can see the changes unfold over time. This shows that for many species the risk is a bit like everything, everywhere, all at once,” said study co-author Dr. Christopher Trisos.
“By animating this process, we hope to direct conservation efforts before it’s too late, while also showing the potentially catastrophic consequences of letting climate change continue unchecked.”
The researchers suggest that this pattern of abrupt exposure may be an inevitable feature of living on a round planet – more area is available to species in hotter environments, such as in low-lying areas or near the equator.
Previous studies by the same lead authors suggest that even if we halt climate change so that global temperatures peak and start to decline, the risks to biodiversity could persist for decades.
Furthermore, they found in another analysis similar to the current study that many species facing unfamiliar temperatures will be living alongside other animals experiencing similar temperature shocks. This situation could pose serious threats to local ecosystem functionality.
The research shines a light on the impending crisis for biodiversity due to climate change and emphasizes the urgency of mitigating its impact. This study underscores the urgency of not just mitigating climate change but also preparing to protect biodiversity from the inevitable changes that will occur even if global warming is slowed or stopped.
Dr. Pigot and his team have given us a stark warning about the impact of climate change on biodiversity and the urgency of taking action.
The time for action is now – to reduce carbon emissions, to prepare for changes, and to protect the myriad species that share our planet. This research has provided an invaluable tool for targeting conservation efforts, and the challenge now lies in using this information before it’s too late.
Climate change tipping points refer to thresholds where a slight rise in Earth’s temperature can cause significant changes in the environment and ecosystems. These changes are often abrupt and potentially irreversible. Here’s a deeper look at how these tipping points affect plants, animals, and the environment.
Many animal species have specific climatic conditions in which they can survive. These conditions involve particular temperature ranges, levels of precipitation, and availability of food and water. If the climate changes and crosses these thresholds, these species may struggle to survive. For example, polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt; if the ice melts too early in the year due to rising temperatures, they have less time to find food and reproduce.
Similar to animals, plants also have specific climatic conditions that allow them to thrive. They may not be able to survive or reproduce effectively if temperatures rise beyond a certain point, or if there are changes in precipitation patterns. Changes in climate can also make plants more susceptible to diseases, pests, and wildfires. For instance, warmer winters might not kill off pests like pine beetles, leading to large-scale tree mortality.
Climate change can lead to a variety of environmental tipping points. This includes melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, which contributes to rising sea levels and potential flooding of coastal communities. Changes in ocean temperatures can lead to coral bleaching, a phenomenon that can devastate coral reefs and the marine species that rely on them. Warmer temperatures can also lead to more frequent and severe weather events, such as hurricanes, heatwaves, and droughts.
Climate change can also lead to tipping points through interactions between species. For instance, changes in the availability of a particular plant species can affect the herbivores that rely on them for food, which in turn can impact predators. Changes in one part of an ecosystem can have cascading effects that lead to broader ecosystem changes.
There’s also the concern about feedback loops. For instance, as the Arctic warms, ice melts and reveals dark water and land that absorb more sunlight, leading to further warming and melting – this is known as the ice-albedo feedback loop. Another example is the thawing of permafrost, which can release stored methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which then contributes further to global warming.
On a larger scale, scientists worry about tipping points in the Earth’s climate system that could lead to a much warmer world. For instance, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could eventually raise sea levels by several meters. The dieback of the Amazon rainforest could release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.
These tipping points, once crossed, could lead to significant and largely irreversible changes. Understanding and predicting these thresholds is a crucial part of climate change research and underscores the urgent need for global action to mitigate climate change.