Animals: How can Animals Deal with Climate Change?
17 minute read
Updated on Fri Feb 26 2021
Animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria are all examples of living “organisms”. They all have things in common - like the ability to move, eat and grow. Many of them are also likely to be affected by climate change.
Organisms can be grouped into different species. When there are no more individuals of that species left alive we call that species extinct. The “lifespan” of a species varies, but scientists estimate that species exist for between 1 and 10 million years.
Besides complete extinctions, it is clear that many population sizes are also decreasing globally. Between 1970-2014, the sizes of over 16,000 vertebrate populations from 4,000 species have declined by 60% on average.
How does climate change actually cause extinction?
There are a few key causes. For example:
- Heatwaves, such as in Australia where 23,000 flying foxes died from overheating in 2018.
- Rises in sea level reduce land availability. This means animals might have less access to food and living areas, which reduces their chance of survival.
- Seawater floods make the land and water saltier. This is problematic for plants that aren’t adapted to salty environments as it causes water to be drawn out of their cells, dehydrating them.
The ocean plays an important role in keeping conditions on Earth constant by absorbing both heat and CO₂ from the atmosphere. While this buffering might be good for us on land, organisms that live in the ocean are taking the hit underwater. Let's look at an example:
- Provide homes for a quarter of all fish species.
- Protect people from floods and storms by breaking waves.
- Provide income to at least 94 countries by attracting tourism.
We have already reached 1.0°C warming. Coral reefs are so sensitive that if temperatures reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is predicted that 70 to 90% of them will be lost. If we reach 2°C, nearly all coral reefs will be lost.
Life in the ocean is also made worse by an issue known as ocean acidification: when the ocean absorbs the CO₂ we are releasing into the atmosphere, it becomes more acidic. This can interfere with chemical reactions that ocean species rely on to survive.
What can species do?
To avoid going extinct in the face of climate change, many species have only three options to stay alive.
One way wildlife can respond is by migrating (moving) to a more suitable habitat. Species are generally migrating towards the poles (by 17km per decade) or uphill (by 11m per decade) to reach cooler temperatures.
Are organisms adapting fast enough?
This is about 10x faster than species needed to move during the climate change at the end of the last ice age. Plus, species might run out of places to go, if they meet barriers or reach the top of a mountain.
Climate change is just one of many significant threats to our planet’s wildlife. The fast rate of global warming might mean that species can’t adapt or migrate fast enough to survive. We must slow down the pace of warming if we want to protect ecosystems and the services they provide to humans.Next Chapter