Over 80 Percent of Earth's Ecological Processes Already Hit by Climate Change

Every aspect of life on earth, from habitat to genes, already feels the heat, says international paper.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Waves crash over the Rambla sea wall during a wind storm in Montevideo, Uruguay, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016. Scientists concur that global warming is driving increasingly extreme weather.
Waves crash over the Rambla sea wall during a wind storm in Montevideo, Uruguay: Scientists concur that global warming is driving increasingly extreme weather.Credit: Matilde Campodonico, AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Climate change isn't just a problem for the future: it has already impacted 82 percent of all planetary ecological systems, scientists estimate.

Climate-change deniers are starting to look a lot like flat-earthers: the facts are known, but they are uninviting. Scientists are clear that climate change and global warming are real, and whatever the future may hold in store, they are already causing massive planetary change, according to a joint paper led by Florida University, with Hong Kong University, "The broad footprint of climate change from genes to biomes to people", published in Science.

"Anthropogenic climate change is now in full swing, our global average temperature already having increased by 1°C from preindustrial levels," they begin their paper.

A Hong Kong-Floridan collaboration makes sense, given their vulnerability to climate change, not least in the form of rising seawater as sea ice melts and the warming oceans expand. From the year 1870 to date, sea water levels have risen on average by almost 200 millimeters, which is almost 7.8 inches. That is not far shy of a foot. (The precise amount by which the water has risen in any given location is a factor of multiple parameters.)

Drought- and heat-stricken corn in Nashville: Scientists connect man-made climate change to extreme weather, including deadly heat waves and droughts. Credit: Seth Perlman, AP

Every aspect of life on Earth is impacted by climate change, from genes to entire ecosystems, writes the team: Of 94 ecological processes evaluated globally, 82 percent showed evidence of impact from climate change.

"We now have evidence that, with only a roughly 1 degree Celsius of warming globally, major impacts are already being felt in natural systems," said study lead author Dr Brett Scheffers of the University of Florida. "Genes are changing, species' physiology and physical features such as body size are changing, species are moving and we see clear signs of entire ecosystems under stress, all in response to changes in climate on land and in the ocean."

Genes are changing

Genetic change – mutation – is random. In conditions of rising heat, mutations that help a species survive hotter conditions will be beneficial; by the theory, possessors of that mutation will thrive more than their non-mutant peers. Thus climate as a stressor can drive inherited change.

One example, from 2015, is wild plants studied by University of Liverpool scientists. Simulation of climate change stresses over 15 years led to the stark conclusion that the climate change treatments had altered the genetic composition of the plant populations.

The Liverpudlians also concluded that one species was undergoing evolutionary change: in theory, plants could evolve to thrive in different conditions – but don't hold your breath. Natural change is both random and the proliferation of "good" mutations is slow. Hence scientists at Israel's Volcani Institute, for instance, have been working on creating a better apricot that can flourish in hotter climes, and people in New Zealand are working on engineering the humble kiwi. The fruit, not the bird.

The Hong Kong warty newt will be in trouble if warming water temperatures mean it can't reach optimal mating conditions. Credit: Drow, Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, land, freshwater and marine ecosystems and species have all been all affected, says the international collaboration, noting downsides already palpable. Mosquitoes for instance, which adore wet, warm climes, are spreading further, taking the parasitic diseases they carry with them.

As the mosquito flies

People meanwhile are getting not only these insect-borne maladies but a host of others as the weather becomes warmer and wilder. Overfishing had already been plaguing fish stocks: now the warming waters are driving marine life to move, and the same combination of planetary ills, changing climate and violent storms, are slamming agriculture yields.

Over in the United States, a crucial player in creating and fighting climate change, the president-elect has vowed to reroute climate change to more useful things. The rest of the world has however taken notice of the problem and four days before Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the American poll, the Paris agreement on climate change came into force. The pact shows that just about everybody but the Republican party and its leaders understand the need to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And not a moment too soon. The day after the election, on November 9, the World Meteorological said the years 2011 to 2015 had been the five hottest years on record.

"Some people didn't expect this level of change for decades," said co-author Dr James Watson, of the University of Queensland in Australia. "The impacts of climate change are being felt with no ecosystem on Earth being spared. It is no longer sensible to consider climate change as a concern just for the future."

"The paper shows that there are winners and losers under global warming: the geographic ranges of some species have expanded while others have contracted, and timing of breeding and other seasonal events have shifted," said co-author, Professor David Dudgeon of the University of Hong Kong.

That island nation has a particular problem. It's small, which means that species can't migrate to more comfortable habitats unless they can swim or fly. Some amphibians for instance only procreate in winter. If there is no cold weather, it may not mate. So much for the Hong Kong warty newt.



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