How Climate Change Affects Biodiversity Loss

The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others. — Theodore Roosevelt

The link between climate change and biodiversity has long been established. Although throughout Earth’s history the climate has always changed with ecosystems and species coming and going, rapid climate change affects ecosystems and species ability to adapt and, contributing to biodiversity loss.

As shown by J.M. Scott (2008), shortly after World War II, humankind entered in a phase of almost exponential population growth, going from around 3 billion people to 7.2 billion people nowadays. Biodiversity loss is a factor that follows that trend closely.

(Adapted from Scott, J.M. (2008) — Threats to Biological Diversity: Global, Continental, Local)

As shown by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the global leading research institute focused on socioenvironmental resilience, biodiversity is the main player when it comes to building resilience to a system. Therefore, biodiversity loss translates into a great threat to the global environmental scenario. Many human-related activities can be related to this phenomenon. On this article, we will focus on the effect on climate change in land and ocean biodiversity.

The environmental changes in climate can intensify many catastrophic events, such as droughts, decrease water supply, threaten food security, erode and inundate coastlines, and weaken natural resilience infrastructure that humans depend on.

When it comes to land biodiversity, global warming is the biggest enemy of the polar regions. Fauna like polar bears, penguins, puffins, and other Arctic creatures will face a constant threat of losing their habitat through the diminishment of ice caps. As the ice melts, it increases the sea level, which will affect and perhaps destroy ecosystems on coastlines. Changes in temperatures, as already predicted by IPCC’s reports, will also cause shifts in mating cycles, especially for migratory animals that rely on changing seasons to indicate their migration and reproductive timing.

Polar bear. (via WWF)

Changes in other biogeochemical cycles can be translated in a drastic shift in water and resources, affecting all forms of fauna and flora. Small animals, like insects and fungi, tend to be more sensitive to environmental changes. These same animals are responsible for maintaining many environmental services provided by nature, like polinization, soil aeration, etc. Graduate extinction of microfauna would then only accelerate biodiversity loss in a cascade effect. We have to keep in mind that natural communities are linked between a net of ecological relations, if climate change affects one group, many others will suffer its effect too.

When talking about the impacts of climate change, we mostly hear about changes to land and the planet’s surface or atmosphere. But, climate change also means ocean change. But, according to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of the main researchers linked to climate change and coral reefs, we should pay more attention to what is happening underwater. The rapid rise of greenhouse gas concentrations is driving ocean systems toward conditions not seen for millions of years, with an associated risk of fundamental and irreversible ecological transformation. Changes in biological function in the ocean caused by anthropogenic climate change go far beyond death, extinctions and habitat loss: fundamental processes are being altered, community assemblages are being reorganized and ecological surprises are likely.

Dead zones in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. (via news.com.au)

The same researcher warns us about coral reefs extinction. “The future is horrific”, he says. “There is no hope of reefs surviving to even mid-century in any form that we now recognize. If, and when, they go, they will take with them about one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity. Then there is a domino effect, as reefs fail so will other ecosystems. This is the path of a mass extinction event, when most life, especially tropical marine life, goes extinct.”.

Climate change is a broad issue, and many of the facts related to it are interconnected, what represents environmental negative cascading effects that might happen if society does not change its pathways quickly. The bigger the rate we lose biodiversity, the faster drastic global environmental events will happen. Such problem will dedicate our survival and life quality. We have to act, the sooner the better.