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Heat rising for world’s wildlife

  • Written by  Helen Taylor
  • Published in Wildlife
Water is crucial for African elephants. They need to drink 150-300 litres per day. Hotter temperatures and less rain – as well as a projected increase in periods of severe drought – will have a direct effect on elephant numbers Water is crucial for African elephants. They need to drink 150-300 litres per day. Hotter temperatures and less rain – as well as a projected increase in periods of severe drought – will have a direct effect on elephant numbers Martin Harvey / WWF
16 Mar
2018
Half of animal species in world’s most biodiverse areas could face extinction as global temperatures soar

The Amazon region is among 35 of the world’s most diverse and wildlife-rich areas facing a critical loss of wildlife if carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked.

A new study, a joint effort by the University of East Anglia and the James Cook University and commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), surveyed the impact of rising global temperatures on 80,000 plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

It explored a number of future climate change scenarios, from a 2ºC rise in-line with the Paris Climate Agreement, to a 4.5ºC rise if emissions targets aren’t met. Even if global warming is capped at 2ºC, the report suggests that places such as the Amazon and the Galapagos could lose 25 per cent of their species by 2100.

Amur Heilong WW259065(Image: Ola Jennersten/WWF-Sweden)

Jeff Price, senior research associate at UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, said: ‘The study was triggered by the Paris Accords as well as the Paris Pledges. We looked at warming levels of 4.5ºC (where no changes are made), 2.7 to 3.2ºC (where the current pledges would get us to if they were met) and 2ºC (the threshold point for dangerous climate change).’

The researchers surveyed 35 areas, all chosen for their environmental uniqueness and rich biodiversity. Among them, the Amazon-Guianas, southwest Australia and the Miombo Woodlands in Southern Africa were discovered to be most at risk.

The study revealed a number of worrying statistics if global warming reaches 4.5ºC: 80 per cent of the mammals in the Miombo Woodlands could become locally extinct; the Amazon could lose 69 per cent of its plant species; 60 per cent of species will be at risk of localised extinction in Madagascar; and 89 per cent of Australia’s amphibians could become locally extinct.

The study also revealed that erratic rainfall could become the ‘new normal’, affecting African elephants (who drink 150 to 300 litres of water per day), Sundarban tigers (whose breeding ground will be submerged by sea-level rise), and marine turtles (rising seas and storms increasing egg mortality).

Tanya Steele, CEO of WWF, added: ‘Around the world, iconic animals such as Amur tigers or Javan rhinos are at risk of disappearing, as well as tens of thousands plants and smaller creatures that are the foundation of all life on Earth.’

Other vulnerable species at risk from climate change are those that can’t move freely or quickly, such as plants, amphibians and reptiles. If species are able to move to new environments that still suit them, they are 20 to 25 per cent less likely at a 2ºC temperature rise to suffer local extinction.

East Africa Turtles WW241409(Image: Jonathan Caramanus/Green Renaissance/WWF-UK)

SPECIES CASE STUDIES

• Orang-utans lead a solitary lifestyle, which allows them to move in order to cope with reduced food availability. However, females are strictly bound to their territories, therefore putting them at risk when deforestation and other human pressures devastate forests.

Snow leopards live under extreme conditions with very little margin for change, making them particularly sensitive to changes in climate. Their habit will shrink by 20 per cent due to global warming, increasing competition for food sources, especially with the common leopard.

Tigers already live in fragmented landscapes, and will be affected by further climate-induced habitat loss. Projected sea level rise will submerge 96 per cent of breeding habitat for the Sundarbans tigers, and Amur tigers are unlikely to persist into the next century if the size and quality of their habitat is reduced.

Polar bears depend on sea ice to live and eat and are among the creatures most sensitive to global warming. Younger polar bears that are not practiced hunters are particularly affected by food shortages due to shrinking sea ice. Polar bears in some areas are already in decline. For example, the population in Hudson Bay has already been reduced by 22 per cent, and is predicted to decline sharply by the end of the 21st century.

Marine turtles are also highly sensitive to climate warming. Tortoises and turtles are among species with temperature-dependent sex determination. Warmer temperatures will produce more females resulting in a dangerous sex bias. Also, increased flooding will increase egg mortality and warmer sand will produce smaller and weaker hatchlings.

Price fears that a rise of 2ºC is still too high. ‘Some of the results were as expected,’ he says, ‘although we were surprised at the magnitude of the potential impacts at lower temperatures of 2ºC. The study clearly shows that 2ºC as a “threshold” temperature for UNFCCC Article 2 is too high. The Paris Accords have an aspirational goal of being as close to 1.5ºC as possible, but this will be difficult to achieve.’

The WWF says the findings call for a greater push to uphold the pledged 2ºC temperature rise, and for more research to be done on the potential effects of that rise. ‘I really hope that global leaders take note of this report and see just how dire the consequences are of allowing global mean temperatures to rise above 2ºC,’ says Niki Rust, a wildlife advisor at the WWF. ‘For the sake of humanity and the other species that share this planet, we have to cut carbon emissions.’

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