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How climate change is hurting ecosystems across the globe

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
December 26, 2016, 8:26:26 AM EST

Climate change doesn’t affect only global temperatures; it changes life itself.

The majority of plants and animals live in habitats with specific climate conditions, so any change in the atmosphere can affect the plants and animals living there, as well as the makeup of the entire ecosystem. Climate change has been shown to affect animals and plants in a variety of different ways.

    The rise in global temperatures is affecting everything from animal metabolism to productivity, behavior and habitats. Climate change has impacted plant growth as well, forcing changes like altering dates for wine grape harvesting.

    Global warming is expected to cause an irreversible change and alteration in the ecosystem.

    “One of the most dramatic ways we have observed species responding to climate is through their phenology, the timing of different events in nature,” research scientist at Columbia University Ben Cook said.

    Climate change alters the life cycles of animals on land and sea as well as plants. For example, as temperatures rise, some animals are waking from hibernation sooner or migrating at different times. Many plants are starting to bloom earlier in the spring and survive longer into the fall.

    Unfortunately, the animals and plants that can't migrate are suffering and even going extinct.

    Global warming effects on land
    Just like people, animals and plants will have to adapt to climate change. While some animals are thriving due to climate change, others are left fighting for their lives. Invasive species are now disrupting some ecosystems, wreaking havoc.

    According to John Wiens, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, animals respond to climate change in three main ways.


    Emperor Penguin Chicks on the snow in Antarctica. (vladsilver/iStock/Thinkstock)

    First, animal species can move to track their original climate. Or they might stay where they are, and possibly change their behavior or evolve to accommodate the new conditions.

    Lastly, a species may go extinct, either in one particular location, which is called a local extinction, or everywhere the species lives, which is called global extinction. A global extinction means that the entire species is gone forever.

    Penguins and birds have to migrate sooner and travel farther. Marmots, a type of large squirrel, are changing their hibernation patterns and gaining more weight.

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    Even though climate change is the ultimate cause, there can be many different direct threats that are related to climate change.

    These include the loss of prey species that predators depend upon and loss of habitats such as ponds drying up. A warming climate also helps to increase the spread of diseases and other parasites.

    "For example, there is a chytrid fungus that is helped spread by climate change, which has had devastating impacts on frog species in the United States, Central America, South America and elsewhere. As many as 100 species may have gone extinct from this already," Wiens said.

    A new study from the University of Arizona, authored by Wiens, found that local extinctions related to global warming have already occurred in almost half of the species studied.

    "These local extinctions occurred all over the world, on both land and in the ocean, and in both plants and all major groups of animals, including mammals, birds, fish and insects," Wiens said.

    Data on climate-related range shifts were used to test the frequency of local extinctions related to recent climate change. The results show that climate-related local extinctions have already occurred in hundreds of species, including 47 percent of the 976 species surveyed.

    "Overall, local extinctions from climate change are already widespread despite the small increase so far and will almost certainly increase, since climate is expected to increase by an additional 1 to 5 degrees within the next 50 to 100 years," Wiens said.

    Climate change effects in the oceans
    With changing temperatures on land and in the sea, land animals aren't the only ones affected. Fish have to migrate farther north to find colder water, and coral reefs are dying, which disrupts the entire food chain.

    Coral reef

    Coral and fish in the Red Sea. Egypt, Africa. (VitalyEdush/iStock/Thinkstock)

    According to Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, coral reefs cover only 1 percent of the planet, yet they are home to 25 percent of marine species. Also, upwards of 40 million people rely on coral reefs for the fish and shellfish they eat.

    Rising ocean temperatures can lead to more frequent coral bleaching events and infectious disease outbreaks. When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.

    "In addition, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more carbon dioxide is adsorbed by ocean waters. This makes the water more acidic, which makes it harder for corals to build and maintain their skeletons," Senior Climate and International Specialist Britt Parker said.

    Corals could become rare in some locations due to the combined effects of warmer water and an increase in ocean acidity caused by more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The loss of coral reefs will reduce habitats for many other sea creatures, and it will disrupt the food web that connects all living things in the ocean.

    To help give coral reefs a better chance of surviving the effects of climate change, people should treat these delicate ecosystems with care. People can also support groups like Ocean Reef Group and Coral Reef Alliance working to protect coral reefs.

    Plants can't keep up with the fast-paced changes
    The climate is changing too rapidly for plants to adapt.

    “For example, thanks to climate change, spring is warmer and many plants are putting out their leaves and flowers earlier than they did in the past,” Cook said.


    Quiver Tree in the semi-desert planes of the Namib Naukluft Desert in Namibia. (SteveAllenPhoto/iStock/Thinkstock)

    “Most recently we showed that climate change has resulted in wine grape harvests in France to be on average 10 days earlier now than they ever were before,” Cook said.

    In studies, Cook has shown a small fraction of plants will actually delay their leafing and flowering with warmer conditions because they need a cold winter to support growth.

    Some North American plants are moving farther north or to higher elevations to find suitable climates.

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