Ice will return but extinctions can’t be reversed. We must act now

  • 266

Each day increasingly dangerous hurricanes, wildfires, and floods betray the influence of . We are appalled at the accruing losses of life and property. The arguments to address climate change at the recent UN climate conference in Bonn focused most often on these more concrete risks.

However, the worst effects of climate change will come not from severe weather but from the irreversible loss of species and ecosystems.

Moulded over millions of years by natural selection, the diversity of species on Earth does more than just inspire awe. They are technical marvels and solutions to problems we do not yet know exist.

Mild temperatures of mid-20C transform the American ’s alpine coat into a hairy death suit. Photograph: Arndt Sven-Erik/BBC

Scientific evidence now suggests that the Earth has embarked on its sixth crisis, on a par with those executed by extraterrestrial asteroids and geologic upheavals. But this time we are at fault. Most current extinctions ensue from land use and overexploitation, but climate change is now catching up and accelerating these risks.

A couple of years ago I began obsessively scanning thousands of scientific papers for extinctions predicted from climate change. I collected more than half a million predictions including plants and animals from seven continents and the ocean. Surprisingly, I found that species extinctions would not just increase with , but speed up in a rising arc. If we continue emitting current levels of , climate change could threaten 16% of species – more than a million – by 2100.

Look out of your window and count six species. Now imagine one is gone forever.

We risk losing common, backyard species like the saltmarsh sparrow. About 50,000 of these yellow-cheeked birds nest precariously above normal high tides along the east coast of the US. Scientists predict that climate-amplified tides will wipe this bird off the saltmarsh – and the Earth – in a few decades.

We are already losing the American pika, a rabbit-like creature adapted to life on western North American mountaintops. Even mild temperatures at mid-20C (mid-70F) transform its alpine coat into a hairy death suit. Rising heat is pushing pikas to the top of the mountain, where they have nowhere else to go. They can’t climb sky.

We have just lost the Bramble Cay melomys. This beach rat lived on an Australian coral cay surrounded by the rising seas of climate change. Last year, scientists mounted a rescue mission, but found nothing but a storm-swept island.

As more and more species are , we risk losing Earth’s greatest resource: the library of natural selection. By encoding millions of years of the answers to nature’s travails, biodiversity gives us the drugs in our medicine cabinet, the tools in our intellectual workshop, and solutions to the world’s present and future problems. We are burning the greatest books on Earth before we have read them.

The Bramble Cay melomys became extinct in 2016. The beach rat lived on an Australian coral cay surrounded by the rising seas of climate change. Photograph: Queensland government

The human race is capable of great things, and no greater task lies ahead of us than protecting the greatest diversity of life in the universe.

First, the US must recommit to the Paris climate agreement and keep the Earth from heating beyond 2C. Above this limit, extinction risks accelerate even faster.

Second, we need the equivalent of a biological Manhattan Project for predicting and preserving biodiversity. We still know so little about life on Earth. We often do not know which species are most at risk or how best to save them. Everyone from citizens to scientists needs to get back outside and study how nature works.

Third, we need to harness the computing horsepower of the software industry to create next-generation forecasts of species’ responses to climate change. We can explore endless permutations of those digital species to predict threats and test solutions. Imagine a computer game that simulates nature, all within our laptops.

Fourth, we need to design robust management strategies to protect the most species possible. We can use corridors to network parks so that species can track moving climates. We can help poor dispersers by identifying and protecting refugees and, in extreme cases, moving species ourselves. We can even help nature adapt to climate change by maintaining large, genetically diverse populations.

Heat waves, severe storms, and melting sea ice are alarming . But extinctions are the only impacts that cannot be reversed. Even the disappearing ice will return.

Every day we wait, the Earth warms, and we climb higher up the arc of extinction.

Mark Urban is associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut

This article was first published by The Guardian on 28 Dec 2017.


Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter



Founder and Executive Editor

Share this post with your friends

  • 266

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
Marie-Anne Le Clerc
Michael J. Cohen

It is sad to see that the short circuit in our scientific thinking makes us ignore the point source of this catastrophe along with its readily available remedy that is validated at

george mira

Science is a broad word. Systems thinking might be useful as a concept. In nature, nothing is seen to exist in isolation, but always related to all that exists around it. There are some questionable links provided here and there on this site, with quasi-religious ideations. Such constructs as “god” were brought about by hierarchical city-state cultures. Even today, as an illustration, native american words meaning literally “Great Wind” and great unknowable thing(s), weather, cycles, microorganisms, growth, death, dissolution and transport of animals, chlorophyll, transfer of breath when noting that breathing is coincident with life (thus, great wind, and the… Read more »

Seems really simple! All we need is for the climate “deniers” to acknowledge the truth. But how they love their fossil fuels AND their profits.

Timothy Kinkead

wow and this climate change is all due to man and our thirst for fossil fuels!