Dire Outlook for Climate Impacts, New Report Says
A new U.S. government report confirms that climate change is already hitting the nation hard.
A once rare butterfly living in the United Kingdom is the latest unexpected beneficiary of the rising temperatures brought about by global climate change. Over the last 25 years, the brown Argus butterfly can now exist over a larger range thanks to a warmer environment and a new plant host to raise its young. And these fortunate insects aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from a warmer world. Yes, over the coming decades, there are certainly many other species, including humans, that will feel increasingly pressured by environmental changes brought about by climate change. But there will be some balance of winners and losers among the different species on this planet. Here's a look at some of those who will likely come out ahead.
Change in wind patterns as a result of climate change has helped albatrosses in the Southern Ocean find food more rapidly, according to a study published in a January 2012 issue of Science. The faster and more intense winds reduce the amount of energy albatrosses need to expend to fly, particularly useful given that these birds can fly distances spanning thousands of miles. By using less energy and finding more food, the albatrosses are healthier and often have better breeding outcomes, according to the study's authors.
Gray Nurse Shark
Worldwide, around one third of oceanic shark species are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These animals are primarily at risk as a result of human intervention, particularly the overfishing of sharks for their fins. But there is one species of shark that may stand to benefit from man-made climate change, the Australian gray nurse shark. Like many shark species, gray nurse shark populations have been under pressure. This species could disappear entirely by 2050. However, thanks for warmer waters surrounding Australia, two separate populations of this nurse shark on each side of the continent may reunite for the first time in 100,000 years.
Sharks aren't the only sea life that might benefit from warmer waters. Killer whales, too, appear poised to take advantage of rising ocean temperatures, exploiting new feeding areas as Arctic snow ice melts that were once off limits. The orca's gain, however, could be detrimental to other species. Killer whales prey on two species, the beluga and the narwhale, considered "near threatened" by the IUCN. With their chances to escape to safety from the predatory killer whales dwindling as ice melts, these species could face further pressure to their populations.
This tiny insect has made major inroads into the North American continent thanks to warmer temperatures. Mountain pine beetles can decimate entire forests. During cold snaps, they are killed off. But with shorter, warmer winters, more of these bugs are surviving through the cold season and expanding their ranges even further.
Acidifying oceans and warmer waters might be encouraging swells in populations of jellyfish around the world. Although the notion that jellyfish are benefiting from climate change has been subject to debate, studies have shown that coastal jellyfish populations are generally on the rise. More jellyfish would be bad news for any species that relied on the oceans for its food supply, including humans. Jellyfish can essentially reorder the food web by eating the same plankton that would otherwise be consumed by fish, restricting the transfer of energy on the food chain since predators tend to avoid them. The increase in jellyfish populations could also lead to an ecological disaster by resulting in an increase in carbon beyond what oceans can cope with, according to a report from The Guardian. When jellyfish die, they break down into biomass with considerably higher levels of carbon than their vertebrate counterparts. Bacteria that thrive on decaying organisms cannot absorb carbon as well and instead breathe it out into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Once standing on the brink of extinction due to over-hunting for their meat and feathers in the 19th century, trumpeter swans have made a comeback in Alaska, thanks not only to restrictions on hunting these birds but also to global warming. Warmer temperatures have allowed the swans to expanding their ranges, and longer summers have allowed to greater opportunities for breeding and raising young, according to Scientific American.
Americans spend some $40 billion a year caring for their lawn, according to Bloomberg News. And that industry could get even more lucrative with the spread of a pest that has its sites set on your home turf: fire ants. According to a report from the National Wildfire Foundation, the range of red imported fire ants could expand some 21 percent in the United States, more than 80 miles northward, within the lifetime of a child born today.
If there's one creature who's climate change gain is our loss, it's mosquitoes. No longer restricted to strictly tropical environments, mosquitoes have spread as warmer temperatures have crept into environments they had never previously been. More mosquitoes means higher potential to spread diseases, including malaria, West Nile virus and dengue fever. This greater risk of disease is not only bad news for humans, but also some animals, including certain bird species, who had previously been unexposed to these pests. In fact, even some of the world's largest creatures are not immune to the disease transmitted by these tiny insects. Last month, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society revealed that two whales kept in captivity died as a result of diseases carried by mosquitoes.
Yellow Bellied Marmot
Although most mammals won't be able to flee climate change quickly enough, some are taking full advantage of the changing conditions. The yellow-bellied marmot, which calls Colorado's Rocky Mountains home, fattens up ahead of winter before its long hibernation into spring. With a shorter season though, the marmots are emerging larger than they otherwise would. As a result, they've also been breeding more and passing their larger size onto their offspring.
The most dire government warning yet about climate change, released today, says that people are feeling the effects of warming here and now in the United States.
The National Climate Assessment, produced every four years by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is the third report in the current series that outlines the present and ongoing effects of climate change on the country.
Citing record temperatures in the last decade, heavy rainfall and flooding in some places and drought in others, more frequent and stronger hurricanes, as well as winter storms, the report states: "Global climate is changing and this is apparent across the United States in a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels."
"Climate change is not a distant threat; it's already affecting every region of the country and economy," said John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, today at a White House press conference.
Looking to future climate, the report states that temperatures will continue to rise over the next several decades, given the climate-changing gases that are in Earth's atmosphere. How much they will rise after that depends on how much humans curtail the release of the gases that cause climate change.
If emissions can be kept in check, temperatures could rise as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the United States in the last few decades of the century. If emissions rise, the nation starts to look very hot, with much of the country -- especially the interior -- roasting under 8 to 9 degree rises in average heat levels.
And those higher temperatures have wideranging effects, the report warned. "The types and magnitudes of impacts vary across the nation and through time. Children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor are especially vulnerable. There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced," the report said.
Among specific predictions in the study for the last few decades of this century:
Wet regions will get wetter and drier regions drier:
Global sea levels will rise from 1 to 4 feet, swamping low-lying regions.
Strong storms will become more frequent, causing infrastructures and systems to collapse, similar to what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Human health will be threatened by extreme weather, wildfires, decreased air quality, threats to mental health, and illnesses transmitted by food, water, and disease-carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks.
Kim Knowlton, co-deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Science Center and senior scientist in NRDC’s health and environment program, said in a press release: “This report shows how climate change’s effects are now firmly in the present, posing threats to our health -- and that of our children, and their children.
"Rising temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of dangerous heat waves, worsen illnesses like asthma, contribute to the spread of insects that carry infectious diseases, and fuel more dangerous storms and flooding.
"We have important opportunities now to limit climate change’s worst effects by cutting carbon emissions. At the same time, we can prepare to deal with what’s happening now, and for what’s coming, to protect communities and people. ”
The report is robust: Over 300 experts produced it under the guidance of a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee. The report was extensively reviewed by other experts and included public comments. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences also reviewed the report.
To read it, you can go here. You might want to brace yourself.