Polar bears clinging to melting icebergs, coral bleaching as the oceans warm; these are the common images of climate change, and its creeping effect on the species with which we share the planet. But a new report has found that the tendrils of climate change are much more far reaching, and can already be seen impacting almost all life on Earth.
“Temperature extremes are causing evolutionary adaption in many species, changing them genetically and physically,” explained Professor John Pandolfi from the University of Queensland, who co-authored the study published in Science. “These responses include changes in tolerances to high temperatures, shifts in sex-ratios, reduced body size, and migration of species.”
The researchers, from a range of institutions in Australia, have looked not at individual species in singular environments, but instead at wide scale ecosystems and their ecological processes, and assessed which are already showing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. They identified 94 core ecological processes, 32 found on land and 31 from marine and freshwater environments, which maintain ecosystem function and provide key services to humans.
Of these, they found that a staggering 82 percent of processes show evidence that they are already being impacted by a warming climate, despite the global average temperature having risen by just 1°C to date. The research indicates in stark terms just how rapidly things are shifting, even at such minimal temperature increases. The threats faced by the expected increasing temperature is not just to other species, but to us too, as many of the services we rely so heavily on, such as fisheries and pollination, will promptly become disrupted.
With this occurring already, the future in which the temperatures are expected to rise even further is pretty bleak. “Some people didn't expect this level of change for decades,” said Associate Professor James Watson, senior author of the study. “The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere, with no ecosystem on Earth being spared. It is no longer sensible to consider climate change as a concern only for the future.”
These shifts and changes in ecological processes are not just a potential disaster for the species that live in these environments, but for humans too. As animals alter migrations, they may spread diseases, as key stone animals move their ranges, they may radically modify ecosystems that we rely on. As the Paris climate agreement is thrown into discourse with the recent events in the United States, never has it been more obvious that climate change has to be tackled immediately.