Global Warming Already Causing Extinctions, Scientists Say

Hannah Hoag
for National Geographic News
November 28, 2006
No matter where they look, scientists are finding that global warming is
already killing species—and at a much faster rate than had
originally been predicted.

"What surprises me most is that it has happened so soon," said biologist Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas, Austin, lead author of a new study of global warming's effects.

Parmesan and most other scientists hadn't expected to see species extinctions from global warming until 2020.

But populations of frogs, butterflies, ocean corals, and polar birds have already gone extinct because of climate change, Parmesan said.

Scientists were right about which species would suffer first—plants and animals that live only in narrow temperature ranges and those living in cold climates such as Earth's Poles or mountaintops.

"The species dependent on sea ice—polar bear, ring seal, emperor penguin, Adélie penguin—and the cloud forest frogs are showing massive extinctions," Parmesan said.

Her review compiles 866 scientific studies on the effects of climate change on terrestrial, marine, and freshwater species. The study appears in the December issue of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics.

Global Phenomenon

Bill Fraser is a wildlife ecologist with the Polar Oceans Research Group in Sheridan, Montana.

"There is no longer a question of whether one species or ecosystem is experiencing climate change. [Parmesan's] paper makes it evident that it is almost global," he said.

"The scale now is so vast that you cannot continue to ignore climate change," added Fraser, who began studying penguins in the Antarctic more than 30 years ago. "It is going to have some severe consequences."

Many species, for example, have shifted their ranges in response to rising temperatures.

A number of butterflies and birds from temperate climates have kept pace with the changes by moving to higher latitudes or altitudes where the temperatures remain within their comfort zones.

"Sweden and Finland are actually gaining species diversity because of butterflies coming up from the continent that they never had before," Parmesan said.

But many species have run out of suitable habitat or fallen prey to pests and disease, while others are suffering from extreme weather events such as El Niños—global climate disruptions that have increased in intensity and severity since the early 1900s.

One El Niño in 1997-1998 caused 16 percent of global corals to go extinct, which in turn threatened many fish species.

"Fish depend on the structure coral reefs provide," said biologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

For species such as coral, the extreme swings in temperature that can be caused by global warming are more of a concern than the rising average temperatures, Worm said.

Harlequin frogs native to the cloud forests of Costa Rica have been hit especially hard.

In January J. Alan Pounds, a resident scientist at Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, reported that about two-thirds of the 110 known harlequin frog species had been killed off by a disease-causing fungus. (Related: "'Frog Hotel' to Shelter Panama Species From Lethal Fungus" [November 2, 2006].)

The fungus thrives in warmer temperatures, which also make frogs more susceptible to infection.

On Thin Ice

In the Antarctic, three decades of declining sea ice have led to a reduction of ice algae. This, in turn, has reduced the number of krill, an essential food for many fish, marine mammals, and seabirds, including penguins.

"We've predicted that the Adélie penguin will soon be locally extinct," Fraser, of the Polar Oceans Research Group, said.

The species has already nearly disappeared from its northernmost sites in the Antarctic. The population on Anvers Island, for example, has declined more than 70 percent, from 16,000 breeding pairs 30 years ago to 3,500 today (map of Antarctica).

And this year the Adélie population on Litchfield Island disappeared.

"It is the first time in 700 years that the island does not have penguins on it," Fraser said.

Arctic polar bears living in Canada's Hudson Bay, at the southern end of the species' range, are fewer in number and scrawnier because they lack the ice they require to feed from.

"The arctic ice is reducing in area and thickness—some places are just too thin to support a polar bear," the University of Texas's Parmesan said.

Such animal woes may hint at hard times ahead for humans, Fraser added.

"The planet has warmed and cooled in the past, but never have we seen the type of warming that is occurring now, accompanied by the presence of 6.5 billion people who depend on these ecosystems," he said.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, we are completely and totally dependent on them."

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