Responding to Changing Climate
While humans have technology to help them deal with climate change, plants and animals must rely on their ability to adapt.
Many species, though, won’t be able to cope with the rapid changes in weather conditions or to relocate, and will most likely go extinct. Let’s explore how climate change will affect Earth’s biodiversity.
What Is An Ecosystem?
An ecosystem is the complex set of relationships among the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components found in an environment. Ecosystems vary in sizes—from a puddle, to the tropical forest, to an ocean! Biotic components include any living organisms, from microscopic bacteria to the giant redwood trees. Abiotic elements include water, temperature, soil, human presence, and anything non-living that affects an ecosystem’s organisms.
In an ecosystem, all components are interconnected and have a role: there are producers (plants), consumers (herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore animals), and decomposers (fungi and bacteria). When one component changes, it affects all the others. The diverse combinations of abiotic and biotic components and their different interactions have created Earth’s biodiversity.
Animals & Plants on the Move
In the northern hemisphere, many species are already moving north—to find cooler temperatures and “follow” their food—disrupting ecosystems and threatening many species’ survival. The disappearance of natural habitat from deforestation and urban sprawl plus barriers such as roads, train tracks, and power lines make relocation challenging for both plants and animals. Some organisms, especially plants, won’t be able to relocate. Learn more in the video below.
Scientists estimate that by the year 2100, Earth might be up to 11. 5°F warmer than 1990 and that about 40% of its biomes will have shifted to a different state. This could cause ecosystem disruption, changes in vegetation and fauna, and alteration of organisms’ biological cycles, ultimately affecting the survival of many species.
Over millions of years, every species has evolved specific characteristics that allow it to find food, protect itself, and reproduce—overall, survive in its habitat and climate. Each trait can determine the survival of a species as climate changes. Organisms with generic traits might tolerate new climatic conditions or might be able to relocate. Meanwhile, other species have traits so specialized to their habitat, lifestyle, and climate that a new climate can lead to their extinction.
Nature Responds To Climate Challenges
Changes in temperature and precipitation are altering plants and animals’ habitats and lifestyles so rapidly that not all organisms will be able to keep up and survive.
The species below will be impacted by climate change in very different ways. Some represent the challenges that animals might face, while some represent species that might even benefit from it (often at others’ expense).
RISK OF OUTCOMPETITION
Wood frogs have adapted to super cold climates by freezing over the winter. They are the most northern species of frogs and are even found in Alaska. As it gets warmer, bullfrogs might spread north into areas previously occupied only by wood frogs. Bullfrogs would eat wood frogs’ food and even wood frogs, outcompeting them and wiping them out.
PRE-ADAPTED TO ANY CLIMATE
You might have seen some of these squirrels—perhaps in their white and black variants, too—in your backyard, your neighborhood, and around the Nature Museum. They can eat anything and are a highly adaptable species. They live anywhere, including hardwood forests, wooded parks, gardens, and backyards (where they can even take over birdfeeders!). Climate change won’t really affect them.
THRIVING IN HOT, WET WEATHER
Roaches are considered pests and are among the most common allergens for humans. Roaches don’t tolerate cold, but like living in warm temperatures and moist areas. A wetter and warmer climate might provide the perfect conditions for roaches to thrive and spread!
SPECIALIZED HABITAT NEEDS
These warblers only breed in Michigan’s young jack pine forests and winter in the Bahamas. As Earth gets warmer in its wintering habitats, they might have to compete for food as other species move in.
In the breeding grounds, jack pine cones only open and spread in hot and dry conditions, so in a warmer and wetter weather their population might decline. Today, Kirtland’s warblers depend on human-managed fires to ensure jack pine cones open, thus the availability and abundance of nesting sites.
Painted turtles are the most common and most widely distributed turtles in the North America. Like many reptiles, it has “temperature-dependent sex determination,” which means their sex is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Low temperatures produce males, high temperatures produce females. Warmer temperatures might cause more female-only clutches—which might ultimately lead to the extinction of the species.
Freshwater habitat destruction and being hit by cars are negatively impacting the survival of the species.
Spotted salamanders live in hardwood and mixed forests, and breed in swamps, ponds, and vernal pools inaccessible to predatory fish. Climate change will bring warmer and wetter conditions, but also more droughts. Both conditions will impact the abundance of breeding sites, thus impacting this species’ numbers.
Widespread in the Eastern US, Iowa, and Texas, it should occur in Chicagoland’s woods, too. But it doesn’t, likely because of deforestation and the presence of roads. Salamanders are often hit by cars when traveling to their roadside breeding sites.
Today’s world is experiencing an unprecedented rate and degree of change: change in technology, change in ecosystems, change in climate. Faced with this change, how can we continue to protect the planet and its biodiversity? We delved into this question and more with a panel of conservation practitioners, authors, and professors. You can watch the Nature of Conservation below.