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United Nations: Urgent need to protect migratory animal species

A new UN report released at COP28 reveals the severe impacts of climate change on migratory animals. The research emphasizes the dire consequences for migratory species and the potential loss of their crucial ecosystem services.

Worldwide impacts

The study, prepared by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), illustrates how climate change – driven by temperature increases, habitat alteration, shifts in ocean currents, and extreme weather events like wildfires – is substantially affecting migratory species worldwide.

The key impacts mentioned in the report include alterations in migratory routes, changes in breeding timings, and reduced reproductive success and survival rates. These changes not only threaten the species themselves but also the global ecosystem functions they support.

Anthropogenic emissions

“Over the last several decades, anthropogenic emissions (primarily of carbon dioxide (CO2)) have rapidly increased global temperatures and altered climate patterns. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred, affecting both average conditions and annual variability, in particular the frequency of extreme events,” wrote the study authors.

“Climate change has already caused substantial damage and increasingly irreversible losses to most species groups in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.”

Threats to migratory species

“Migratory species are vulnerable to a wide range of threats, both climate-related and non-climate-related, as they move between countries and ecosystems on a seasonal basis.” 

“This potentially exposes them to the impacts of climate change at multiple locations along their migration route, with possible interactions and divergence in the timing of cues at these locations.”

Ecosystem services

Migratory species offer numerous benefits, including nutrition, economic development, and essential services like pollination, seed dispersal, and pest control. They play a pivotal role in climate change mitigation and resilience. 

For example, whales sequester significant carbon amounts, and antelopes can mitigate wildfire risks through their grazing patterns.

Lack of evidence

“Overall, there is widespread evidence of changes in the distribution and phenology of migratory species. In particular, poleward range shifts and earlier migration and breeding are already occurring in temperature-driven medium and high latitudes, and more mixed directional shifts are apparent in the tropics, depending on changes in rainfall,” wrote the study authors. 

“The results of this review suggest that evidence on the impacts of climate change is lacking for several species groups, particularly bats, fish, South American grassland birds, and sharks and rays, as well as regionally for species residing in the tropics and Global South.”

Key findings on migratory species

Rising temperatures

There is strong evidence that global increases in temperature have affected most migratory species groups, and these impacts are mostly negative. 

For instance, rising temperatures are causing changes in the reproduction and survival of krill and are having a negative impact on marine mammals and seabirds that rely on krill as a key food source.

Distribution of migratory species

Climate change is impacting migratory species distribution and timing of migration. In particular, temperature increases are driving poleward range shifts and earlier migration and breeding. 

In some species, such as wading birds, there is a risk this will cause a mismatch between the timing of breeding and the time when prey species are most abundant.

Water availability 

Changes in water availability are causing the loss of wetlands and reduced river flows, which are likely to particularly impact the migration of fish and waterbirds.

Extreme events

Extreme climate-related events such as landslides are causing severe habitat destruction and have already been observed at some seabird breeding sites.

Ocean currents

There is strong evidence that migratory seabirds and marine mammals will be impacted by changes in ocean currents. These changes are likely to alter the nature and functioning of many marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Powerful demonstration 

Steve Barclay is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“Nature underpins the very fabric of our lives – the ecosystems, food and water security upon which we all depend, as well as the health of our economies,” said Barclay.

“The challenges that these migratory species face as a result of climate change are a powerful demonstration of the need for coordinated global action to protect our environment, which is why the UK is taking a leading role in efforts to restore nature, halt biodiversity loss and achieve our stretching targets to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030.”

Severe disruptions to migratory species

Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of CMS, noted that migratory species are facing severe disruptions due to climate change. 

“Migratory species are finely tuned to the rhythms of our planet. They depend on a delicate balance, journeying vast distances to reach habitats specifically suited for their survival and reproduction,” said Fraenkel.

“However, climate change is severely disrupting these critical paths, altering ecosystems and affecting the availability of resources. This disruption serves as a crucial red flag, highlighting the broader implications of climate change not just for these species, but for the interconnected web of life on Earth.”

Migratory species need immediate help

The report stresses the urgent need for action to assist vulnerable migratory species in adapting to climate change. Recommendations include establishing connected protected areas and robust monitoring for successful intervention assessment. 

“The clock is ticking on the future for many iconic species. We owe it to them to raise global awareness that solutions are possible, and call on governments to use this report to take action, seeking out nature based solutions that will help migratory species and that can reduce the impacts of climate change,” said Professor Galbraith, Former Chair of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.


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