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.
South Korean civil and environmental engineers are fine-tuning a robotic swarm that has one purpose: destroy jellyfish. The shredding mechanism might strike some as extreme, but jellyfish are a deadly threat to humans.
The system is called the Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm or JEROS for short and was developed at the South Korean research university KAIST. Associate robotics professor Myung Hyun began working on an unmanned jellyfish removal system three years ago, motivated by jellyfish attacks along the country’s southwest coast. Jellyfish have also caused enormous losses in the local fishing industry, where they clog nets, feed on fish eggs and consume the plankton that fish normally eat.
JEROS robots float on the water surface and use both a GPS system and camera to detect jellyfish swarms. The robots then automatically determine the optimal path and formation. Propulsion motors attached to each robot allow them to move around in the water. Submerged nets guide the jellyfish up into the robot, where a special propeller shreds them. Here’s a video showing JEROS in action.
The KAIST engineers reported that their first swarm was able to destroy about 900 pounds (400 kilograms) of jellyfish an hour while the newer version can suck up closer to 2,000 pounds in the same amount of time. Usually something like this would make me slightly nauseous — and that video is its own horror movie soundtrack — but given how much havoc jellyfish can wreak, I do understand the need here.
When jellyfish and humans clash, the stories sound like science fiction but they’re both real and really awful. The venom from box jellyfish tentacles that can stretch 6.5 feet in length is among the most deadly in the world. Jellyfish regularly mess with power plants by clogging water pipes needed for cooling. Over the weekend they shut down a nuclear reactor in Sweden. The creatures have decimated fisheries as well. In 2007, a mauve stinger jellyfish attack in Ireland suffocated 100,000 salmon in their cages.
Given all that chaos, judicious and closely monitored checks on jellyfish swarms seems warranted to me. But I don’t think they should all be eradicated. Jellyfish do have advantages — and they’ve even inspired unique robot designs. Meanwhile, the KAIST team plans to continue testing their robots in Masan Bay. They hope that beyond jellyfish, the swarm could be used for other purposes such as sea waste removal. To tackle that, they’re going to need bigger propellers.
Photo: The Jellyfish Elimination RObotic Swarm or JEROS shreds jellyfish during a test last August in Masan Bay, South Korea. Credit: KAIST (video)