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Climate change ‘raises extinction risk’

February 28, 2014 in Endangered Species, Extinction, USA, Warming, Wildlife

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A weather eye for possible risks: Climate change will make extinction likelier for many species Image: By Ren West via Wikimedia Commons

A weather eye for possible risks: Climate change will make extinction likelier for many species
Image: By Ren West via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Climate change doesn’t pose a unique threat of extinction to a species, scientists say. It just makes the risk more likely to become a reality.

LONDON, 28 February – Environmental scientists believe they have a blueprint for extinction. They report in Nature Climate Change that they have identified those factors that might make a species more likely to slip away into eternal oblivion as the planet warms and climate conditions change.

It turns out that they knew them all along. There is, the researchers conclude, nothing specifically different about climate change as a threat: it could however make extinction much more likely.

Richard Pearson of University College London (and formerly of the American Museum of Natural History) and colleagues decided to take a small subset of species at risk, and look closely at the factors that determine species extinction.

They chose 36 amphibians and reptiles endemic to the United States. Reptiles and amphibians almost everywhere seem to be vulnerable for a mix of reasons: among them habitat destruction, environmental pollution and the introduction of new predators and new diseases. The more exquisite the ecological niche occupied by the species, the smaller its overall population and the more precarious its chances of survival.

The researchers examined all the information available on salamanders, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards and concluded that, overall, there was a 28% chance of extinction by 2100. But without climate change, this risk dwindled to 1%.

“Surprisingly, we found that the most important factors – such as having a small range or low population size – are already used in conservation assessments,” said Dr Pearson. “The new results indicate that current systems may be able to better identify species vulnerability to climate change than previously thought.”

Carry on conserving

And his co-author Resit Akçakaya of Stony Brook University in the US said: “The bad news is that climate change will cause many extinctions unless species-specific conservation actions are taken; but the good news is that the methods conservation organisations have been using to identify which species need the most urgent help also work when climate change is the main threat.”

So to preserve biodiversity conservationists have to do what many are doing already: focus on species that occupy a small or dwindling space, or are few in number.

Other predictions of future extinction under climate change have usually been based on the rate at which habitat with the right climate will shift or contract, and researchers have been more concerned with how easily species can adapt or migrate and why some species do better than others at shifting to new ground.

In the latest research, the scientists selected a class of animals but did not try to make individual predictions for each species: what they were looking for were general principles.

“Our analysis will hopefully be able to help create better guidelines that account for the effects of climate change in assessing extinction risk,” said Dr Pearson. – Climate News Network

Climate change will hit seafloor life

January 1, 2014 in Deep Ocean, Endangered Species, Marine ecology, Ocean Warming, Species loss

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By Alex Kirby

Life which thrives on the seafloor several miles below the ocean surface is likely to be severely affected by the changing climate, with damaging effects on fisheries.

LONDON, 1 January – Creatures which live deep beneath the ocean surface are likely to be badly hit by climate change over the next century, a new study says.

The study, by an international research team from the UK, Canada, Australia and France, is the first to quantify future losses in deep-sea marine life, using advanced climate models.

The researchers say their results show that even the most remote deep-sea ecosystems are not safe from the impacts of a warming world. They say the weight of the marine creatures that will be lost is greater than the combined weight of every person on Earth.

Large animals like this hydroid Corymorpha glacialis, are expected to suffer major declines  Image: National Oceanography Centre

Large animals like this hydroid Corymorpha glacialis are expected to suffer major declines
Image: National Oceanography Centre

The scientists predict that seafloor-dwelling organisms will decline by over five per cent globally and by 38% in the North Atlantic over the next century. This is because there will be a a reduction in their food source, the plants and animals living at the ocean surface which nourish deep-sea communities when they die and sink to the depths.

The team has found a direct link between climate change and the loss of life on the sea floor. The surface-dwellers will themselves be threatened by a dwindling nutrient supply, triggered by climate impacts such as the slowing of the circulation of the world’s oceans and increased separation between layers of water – known as stratification – as a result of warmer and rainier weather.

In the study, led by the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, the team used the latest climate models to predict changes in food supply throughout the oceans. They then applied a relationship between food supply and biomass calculated from a huge global database of marine life. The results of the study are published this week in Global Change Biology.

“…the extent of changes, particularly in the North Atlantic, was staggering…”

The changes in seafloor communities are expected despite the fact that they live on average four kilometres beneath the ocean surface. The lead author, Dr Daniel Jones, says: “There has been some speculation about climate change impacts on the seafloor, but we wanted to try and make numerical projections for these changes and estimate specifically where they would occur.

“We were expecting some negative changes around the world, but the extent of changes, particularly in the North Atlantic, was staggering. Globally we are talking about losses of marine life weighing more than every person on the planet put together.”

The changes will vary across the world, but most areas will experience damage. Over 80% of all identified key habitats – such as cold-water coral reefs, seamounts and canyons – will suffer losses in total biomass.

The analysis also predicts that animals will get smaller. Smaller animals tend to use energy less efficiently, putting seabed fisheries under further pressure and worsening the effects of the overall declines in available food.

The study was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)  as part of the Marine Environmental Mapping Programme (MAREMAP) – Climate News Network

Right whales go wrong way

December 9, 2013 in Endangered Species, Marine ecology, Ocean Warming, Wildlife

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A right whale mother and calf: Warmer waters may be changing their feeding grounds Image: NOAA Photo Library via Wikimedia Commons

A right whale mother and calf: Warmer waters may be changing their feeding grounds
Image: NOAA Photo Library via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

One of the world’s rarest whale species seems to have deserted its habitual feeding grounds during 2012 – and scientists think climate change may be a factor.

LONDON, 9 December – A mystery is unfolding in the waters of the North Atlantic. Every summer and autumn, numbers of North Atlantic right whales gather in the waters between the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to feed on massive amounts of zooplankton.

But this year the right whales – one of the rarest and most endangered animals on earth – have not turned up in a stretch of water called the Bay of Fundy.

While no-one is sure what is causing the change in the whales’ behaviour, a report in the Yale environment360 online magazine says alterations in the whales’ feeding patterns are taking place against a backdrop of major climate-related ecosystem shifts throughout the north-west Atlantic Ocean.

The right whale – Eubalaena glacialis – came by its name because it was considered by whalers as “the right whale” to hunt, due to its large concentrations of valuable blubber.  It was also easy prey: adult right whales average between 12 and 16 metres in length and can weigh up to 70 tons. They move relatively slowly through the water and float when killed, making them easy to handle.

Record year

At one stage the North Atlantic right whale was hunted to the point of extinction: in recent years numbers have grown to more than 500 individuals.

Marine scientists are now investigating whether changes in water temperature are responsible for shifting the whales’ food supplies and so causing their migratory pattern to alter.

The main ingredient in the whales’ diet is the zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus. Researchers say there’s been a scarcity of the zooplankton in waters around the Bay of Fundy recently: marine scientists say warming waters in the Gulf of Maine, south of the Bay of Fundy, are one likely cause of the decline.

In 2012 waters in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere in the north-western Atlantic underwent a sharp rise in temperature due, say scientists, both to long-term climate change and to an unusually warm year in the area. In the continental US, 2012 was the hottest summer ever recorded.

Fleeing the heat

Various marine species, including cod and red hake, have been moving more to the north in recent years. A study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that of 36 fish stocks examined, more than half were shifting northwards or to greater depths to compensate for warming water temperatures. Lobster and shrimp – vital to the Gulf of Maine’s fishing industry – are also believed to be moving to cooler waters further north.

Shifts in stocks of species at the base of the food chain – phytoplankton and zooplankton – are thought to be due both to warming waters in the north-west Atlantic and to changes in ocean currents.  Scientists have shown that the melt of Arctic sea ice, together with more melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Canada, is likely to mean more freshwater being poured into the north-west Atlantic, leading to increased stratification of ocean waters and alterations in plankton stocks.

But the disappearance of right whales from their usual autumn feeding ground in the Bay of Fundy remains a mystery.  Some have been reported in waters well to the north. In winter, large numbers have been sighted further south, in Cape Cod Bay, off the US coast.

In winter right whales usually move more than 1,000 miles south to breeding grounds off the coasts of the states of Georgia and Florida. Now, with waters staying relatively warm further north, they might be changing their migratory behaviour, deciding not to make the long journey south in the winter months. – Climate News Network