Impacts of Warming on Species

A new study published  in the journal Science demonstrates that warming trends are producing startling shifts of species, with the portent of much greater ramifications in the future. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of latitudinal and longitudinal range shifts for a range of species from different taxonomic grounds in several regions, including Europe, North and South America and Asia and correlation with temperature increases. Among the take-aways of the study:

    1. Species have moved away from the equator at a median range of 16.9 km. per decade -1; for elevation, the analysis revealed a median shift to higher elevations of 11.0 m uphill per decade -1. This is a rate three times greater than found in previous studies;
    2. Unlike previous studies demonstrating nonrandom latitudinal and elevational changes without establishing statistical  linkages between range shifts and warming, this study found a significant correlation between shifts and warming, though with a weaker correlation in terms of elevational shifts;
    3. The rates of latitudinal and elevational shifts are substantially greater than that found in a previous meta-analysis, and increase with levels of warming;
    4. The variation found within taxonomic groups was so substantial that more detailed studies of physiological, ecological and environmental data are required to provide specific assessment for individual species;
    5. The ultimate fate of species in a changing world will be complex. As one of the researchers involved in the study, Chris Thomas of York University, recently concluded: “[r]ealization of how fast species are moving because of climate change indicates that many species may indeed be heading rapidly towards extinction, where climatic conditions are deteriorating. On the other hand, other species are moving to new areas where the climate has become suitable; so there will be some winners as well as many losers.”

This would be a good reading for a module discussing current impacts of climate change; it’s also a good case study of the complexity of climate science as it includes a good discussion of the interaction of climatic and non-climatic factors and multi-species interactions, and is yet another example of why operationalizing the precautionary principle is salutary in the context of climate change policy.

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