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A polar bear stands on an ice floe near Manitoba, Canada, in 2012. Polar bears depend on sea ice, which is forming later in the fall and disappearing earlier in the spring.

Photograph by Paul Souders, CORBIS

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published March 31, 2014

Climate change is doing "widespread and consequential" harm to animals and plants, which are struggling to adapt to new conditions, according to a major report released Monday.

The report, from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finds that many life-forms are moving north or into deeper waters to survive as their habitats shift.

They're also being forced to change their behaviors. For instance, many birds are nesting, breeding, and migrating earlier as spring arrives sooner than before. (Related: "Ten U.S. Species Feeling Global Warming's Heat.")

"Evidence of climate change impacts is strongest and most comprehensive for natural systems," the report said. (See: "New Climate Change Report Warns of Dire Consequences.")

Current research suggests that winners in this transformation will be adaptable species that are expanding their ranges, including many weeds and pests, and also cold-sensitive, invasive species like the Burmese python in Florida, said Peter Alpert, a program director in environmental biology at the U.S. National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.

The losers, Alpert said, will likely be the species that are highly specialized in what they eat or where they live, especially those whose habitats disappear completely.

That might include species such as koalas, which depend mainly on eucalyptus for survival, and the many animal and plant species that live only on isolated mountaintops.

"You have to hope that they can change fast enough to keep up with it," he said. "Species have experienced swings like this in the past, but [the changes] have probably taken a thousand times longer."

Bob Scholes and Hans-Otto Pörtner, both IPCC authors who contributed to the report's ecosystems chapters, agreed, in a joint statement to National Geographic, that the current human-made climate change is happening much faster than in the past. (See a map of global warming's effects.)

Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, South Africa, and Pörtner, an animal physiologist and marine biologist based at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, highlighted six species that are already in decline due to climate change:

  • Orange-spotted filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris). The filefish dwells in coral reef habitats, on which it is totally dependent, and which themselves are declining in part due to climate change. In addition, the orange-spotted filefish is highly sensitive to warm water: The animal went extinct in Japan during an episode of warmer ocean temperatures in 1988.


  • Quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma). This succulent tree is endemic to (and emblematic of) the arid west of South Africa and Namibia. Chapter Four of the fifth IPCC report "shows, for the first time, that the rate of climate change can be just as important for species survival as the magnitude, and that trees are the most vulnerable to rapid change," Scholes said. A well-studied species, the quiver tree is unable to grow and disperse quickly enough to keep up with a fast-changing climate. (Related: "Rain Forest Plants Race to Outrun Global Warming.")


  • Polar bear. The large predator's story is well known: The Arctic sea ice on which the animals hunt is progressively disappearing during the summer. Sea ice is forming later in the fall and disappearing earlier in the spring. "As the Arctic sea ice retreats, polar bears have to exploit alternative food sources, such as on land," the scientists said, and some hungry polar bears have turned to goose eggs. But it's not the best alternative, Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, noted in a previous story. "Some media reports have suggested that this might mean polar bears could just come ashore and eat terrestrial foods and somehow do fine without the sea ice," Amstrup said. "We have absolutely no evidence that they have the ability to do this." (Read "On Thin Ice" in National Geographic magazine.)


  • Adélie penguin. These Antarctic birds mostly live on tiny crustaceans called krill. Krill live on the undersides of ice sheets, where they find refuge and algae as food. But as Antarctic sea ice retreats, krill populations are falling—meaning that the penguins have to migrate farther to find food. Spending a lot more energy to find food makes penguins less successful at breeding and raising young, the scientists said.


  • North Atlantic cod. Overfishing has historically caused numbers of this fish to plunge, but its populations usually bounce back. Not so off the northeastern coast of North America, where populations have not recovered since crashing in the 1990s. "The entire ecosystem seems to have changed," the scientists said, and "this may involve a climate influence due to changing ocean currents and the influx of cold Arctic waters." (Read more about overfishing's impact on New England cod.)


  • Acropora cervicornis and coral worldwide. This reef-building animal "is in decline almost everywhere, for a combination of reasons," said Pörtner, including warming waters—coral are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature. Acropora cervicornis, for instance, used to be widespread in the Caribbean but is now restricted to a few small areas, likely due to warming. (Read more about coral and global warming.)


  • EXTINCT: Golden toad (Bufo periglenes). Along with the Monteverde harlequin frog (Atelopus varius), also of Central America, the golden toad is among the very small number of species whose recent extinction has been attributed with medium confidence to climate change, according to Scholes and Pörtner. Last seen in 1989, the golden frog lived in mountaintop cloud forests that have disappeared due to drought and other climatic changes. Other confounding factors are involved, such as the deadly chytrid fungus, which has killed off many amphibians worldwide. (See: "Photos: Ten Most Wanted 'Extinct' Amphibians.")


Radical Action Needed

Trying to slow the rate of climate change "is critical for the future of many species," Scholes and Pörtner said.

"To spare many thousands of species, not only do we need to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we also have to do it soon," they said.

Potential climate change solutions include making vehicles, homes, and buildings more energy efficient and increasing wind and solar power, hydrogen produced from renewable sources, and other alternative energies.

Meanwhile, the world can "greatly assist by reducing the other pressures facing species, principally habitat loss, overharvesting, and pollution; and by ensuring that species have unimpeded pathways for movement."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

13 comments
Chantelle Taylor
Chantelle Taylor

no point in telling each other how sad it is, of course it is sad. let's do something about it. let's buy less, let's recycle more, let's spend a tiny bit more money on biodegradable soaps, let's bake more to avoid palm oil products...the list is infinite .....

russ george
russ george

The fish of the Atlantic ocean can be brought back to historic high numbers almost immediately. The problem they face is only in small part over fishing. The major problem is their ocean fish pastures are desperately depleted of plankton blooms due to the impacts of high and rising CO2.


We have shown in our work replenishing and restoring a large NE Pacific ocean salmon pasture in 2012 that the we can bring the fish back. Last fall salmon that were grazing on our restored ocean pasture of 2012 came home. In nearby SE Alaska the Pink salmon were caught in the largest catch in all of history. Where 50 million fish were predicted to be caught, a big run, 219 million were actually caught. This delivered nearly a billion dollars into the pockets of fishers. Up and down the west coast salmon are returning in incredible numbers. When they were out at sea instead of mostly starving we treated them to a feast.


The same caring stewardship of ocean pastures will work equally well for both Atlantic Salmon and Cod in an ocean heartbeat. To learn more visit http://russgeorge.net/2014/02/18/atlantic-salmon-starving-ocean-plankton-pastures-die/ 


Bring The Fish Back

russ george
russ george

The fish of the Atlantic ocean can be brought back to historic high numbers almost immediately. The problem they face is only in small part over fishing. The major problem is their ocean fish pastures are desperately depleted of plankton blooms. 


We have shown in our work replenishing and restoring a large NE Pacific ocean salmon pasture in 2012 that the we can bring the fish back. Last fall the salmon that were grazing on our restored ocean pasture of 2012 came home. In nearby SE Alaska the Pink salmon were caught in the largest catch in all of history. Where 50 million fish were predicted to be caught, a big run, 219 million were actually caught. This delivered nearly a billion dollars into the pockets of fishers. 


The same replenishment and restoration of ocean pastures will work for both Atlantic Salmon and Cod in a heartbeat. To learn more visit http://russgeorge.net/2014/02/18/atlantic-salmon-starving-ocean-plankton-pastures-die/ 

Michaela Hill
Michaela Hill

Oh, come on Christine!  Enough with the Chicken Little propaganda.

Tu Fur
Tu Fur

We know plants in the Australian outback are prospering with the added greenhouse gases. What about the animals that are prospering.......  That info about the polar bear is just wrong. Two brown bears with polar bear DNA have been logged. 

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore

@Michaela Hill  The golden toad is extinct. Ie. no longer in existence. Gone. Definition of propaganda = information of a misleading nature. Sorry, doesn't hold up!

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