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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

Human-caused climate change is occurring too rapidly for species to be able to adapt. Plants and animals are currently dying off at a rate that is 100 to 1000 times faster than the average rate of extinction over geological timescales. Because of this, there is mounting evidence that we are heading towards a mass extinction event.

Climate Myth...

Animals and plants can adapt

[C]orals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate." (source: Hudson Institute)

The biggest mass extinction events in Earth’s geological history were driven by rapid environmental and climatic changes, occurring too quickly and widely for many species to be able to adapt to them. Figure 1 shows prior extinction events and atmospheric CO2 concentration over the last 420 million years, since the start of the Devonian period of geological time. Each coloured circle denotes an extinction event, with the most significant ones in red and the lesser extinction events in pink.

Extinction Events and Background CO2


Most mass-extinctions have been linked to immense magmatic events, called Large Igneous Province (LIP) eruptions (Bond & Wignall 2014). No human has witnessed such an eruption, for they only occur every few tens of millions of years. Just as well: the Siberian Traps LIP produced at least three million cubic kilometres of products. In contrast, the May 1980 Mount St Helens eruption, impressive as it was, produced just 2.79 cubic km.

LIP events can inject billions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere. But some are far more deadly than others. To find out why that's the case, we will look at one of the big ones. The eruptions took place at the end of the Permian Period, in what is now Siberia. The Siberian Traps is its name.

At the same time that the Siberian Traps eruptions were taking place, there occurred the largest mass extinction in the last 500 million years of Earth history, known as the “Great Dying”. With more than ninety percent of all species wiped out, it was by far the worst crisis for multicellular life, among the many disasters that have occurred through geological time. The extinction was global. It affected almost all animals and plants in almost all environmental settings. It was accompanied by a dramatic perturbation to the global carbon cycle, involving the injection of enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to more than triple pre-existing levels. There exist multiple lines of geological evidence for multiple environmental problems on multiple fronts. Rapid global warming, acidic rainfall, ozone layer damage, soil erosion, algal blooms, ocean acidification and anoxia: all took a dramatic toll on life on land and in the seas. An idea of the severity of this set of events can be visualised by considering that the aftermath was marked by a coal-gap lasting for ten million years. Coal-forming ecosystems simply did not exist, anywhere on Earth, for that time.

It is important to record that recent research has found that, although the Siberian Traps eruptions waxed and waned over a few million years, the extinction itself took place over a much shorter time-span. More importantly, that time-span, about 60,000 years in length, took place after the most voluminous stage of lava-extrusion, which had no great affect on biodiversity apart from in the immediate district. For reasons still imperfectly understood, just prior to the extinction the magma, instead of erupting at the surface, started to intrude the rocks through which it was passing, deep beneath the ground, to form perhaps the greatest complex of sills anywhere on Earth - a sill being a flat-lying intrusive sheet of igneous rock anything from centimetres to over a kilometre in thickness.

Siberian Traps basalt

Fig. 2: an end-Permian smoking gun? One of countless masses of part-combusted coal enclosed by basalt of the Siberian Traps. Photo: Scott Simper, courtesy of Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

The big problem with that intrusive activity was the very nature of the rocks that were pervasively invaded by the magma, which forced its way through the accumulated strata of a large sedimentary basin, representing hundreds of millions of years of geological time. Within that sequence of sedimentary rocks was an abundance of coal seams, oil and gas deposits, black shales, evaporites (stuff like rock-salt or gypsum) and limestones, much of which got well and truly cooked during the intrusive activity. We have solid evidence (fig.2) for that critical interaction between magma and coal etc through field observations (Elkins-Tanton et al. 2020). That cooking drove off volatile compounds in vast quantities, including water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, chlorine, sulfur and so on.

Intrusive activity associated with the Siberian Traps has now been accurately dated and has been found to coincide with the extinction (Burgess et al. 2017 and references therein). Its commencement is also marked by a massive anomaly in the carbon isotope record. That record is based on the fact that carbon has two stable isotopes, these being carbon 12 (six protons and six neutrons per atom) and carbon 13 (with one extra neutron). Carbon 12 is the super-abundant isotope while carbon 13 is rare, with the average ratio of their planetary abundance being 99:1. However, different carbon sources, for example Earth's mantle and biosphere, have different ratios of carbon 12 and carbon 13. These specific ratios are termed ‘isotopic fingerprints’. They are determined using the high-precision analysis that is available with modern mass spectrometers. Carbon sources that are richer in carbon 13 are termed ‘heavy’, whereas those depleted in carbon 13 are said to be ‘light’.

Notably, the biosphere carbon isotope fingerprint is especially light. The reason is that plants preferentially take up carbon 12 during photosynthesis, so their biomass is relatively depleted in carbon 13. Many animals eat plants and thus the resulting isotope ratio shift, in favour of light carbon 12, is spread onwards, up though the food chain. When the plants and the other participants in that food chain die and decay, the light carbon is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and other gases. Alternately, if the biomass is buried and ends up preserved in the geological record, for example as coal, those rocks will carry that light carbon isotope fingerprint. If the coal is then burned, its light carbon will end up in the atmosphere.

Since there is a constant exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans, the light carbon isotope fingerprint then makes its way into seawater. Because carbon-bearing sedimentary rocks such as limestones have a chemistry that reflects the seawater composition at the time of their deposition, they too will carry that light carbon isotopic fingerprint. So any unusual perturbation to the carbon cycle soon gets spread around the system, where it is preserved for posterity in the rocks, just waiting for a geologist with their hammer and sample-bag.

Species end Permian


Fig. 3: the type section of the Permian-Triassic boundary in southern China, showing the dated ash-beds, the extinction interval and the carbon isotope record from the time including the dramatic, negative spike at the onset of the extinction. After Burgess et al. 2014.

The carbon isotope anomaly associated with the Siberian Traps LIP represents a huge light carbon spike (“excursion”) in the isotopic record (fig. 3). It has been calculated that to create such a spike, between ten trillion and one hundred trillion tons of carbon dioxide had to have been released to the atmosphere over an estimated 2,000 to 18,000 years. That's a CO2 emission-rate of 5000 to 500 billion tonnes per century. Our current carbon dioxide emissions, by the way, are in excess of 3,000 billion tons per century.

Other pollutants likely had roles in the end-Permian mass extinction too, but the lesson is very simple. If you inflict massive physical and chemical stresses on ecosystems, as we are in many parts of the world, then more and more will fail and things start going extinct.

Adaptation becomes more and more difficult when the pollution is everywhere. Food chains start to break down and eventually disintegrate, species with a limited range of foods tend to be affected first and it is only the most adaptable life-forms with the widest range of tolerances that get through the crisis.

Last updated on 29 May 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Further reading/viewing

Here are related lecture-videos from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

Additional videos from the MOOC

State of the Wild, A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands, and Oceans by James Hansen


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Comments 1 to 25 out of 66:

  1. Good article. The only fault I see is "The IPCC storyline scenarios such as A1FI and A2 imply a rate of warming of 0.2 to 0.6°C per decade." which just has not happened but it does not change the message or impact of the article. Kudos to Professor Barry Brook.
  2. England: Little egrets have been observed nesting (previously seen but in winter migrated to southern Europe/Africa) and in 2008 cattle egrets ( from Africa) have also been filmed, although not nesting. In S.England green lizards and brown rock lizards, both mediterranean species are now resident. An illustration of species movement as conditions allow. ( and in the case of the lizards, ably assisted by transcontinental traffic)
  3. I would like to invite readers to my blog witsendnj dot blogspot dot com and especially the early post, Effects of Climate Change, where I give an overview of my concerns. I see very prominent and deleterious effects on vegetation around my home in NJ and I would be very interested to learn of other observers who would be willing to compare notes. Why is this important? Because many of the prominent and influential policy makers live on the Eastern Seaboard and maybe if they become enlightened enough to recognize the collapse of the ecosystem around their own homes, they might finally realize how urgent it is to eliminate carbon emissions. Thank you!
  4. When there is a end, there is always (mostly) a new beginning.
  5. #4. New beginnings? Just look at much of the Middle East. Large areas were once fertile crop producing lands supporting substantial populations in cities. Now the deserts, mostly caused by abandoning age-old water management practices, barely support an assortment of goats and lizards. Not a fruit tree or a grain crop in sight. There are similar places elsewhere in the world. Once lost, always lost. As for evolution taking care of the problem. Evolution for changed climate consitions takes many generations - maybe centuries, maybe millennia, maybe millions of years. The big difference for substantial impact on species this time round is the lack of places to go. Even where human population is sparse, the lands in question are surrounded by urban or agricultural developments inimical to the free movement and re-establishment of existing or changing species. Change *is* natural - when it occurs on natural time-scales. This time we're changing things in the space of a few human generations rather than a few thousand or million years.
  6. Good news,Adelady. Snippet from National Geographic:- "Desertification, drought, and despair—that's what global warming has in store for much of Africa. Or so we hear. Emerging evidence is painting a very different scenario, one in which rising temperatures could benefit millions of Africans in the driest parts of the continent. * Ancient Cemetery Found; Brings "Green Sahara" to Life * Exodus From Drying Sahara Gave Rise to Pharaohs, Study Says Scientists are now seeing signals that the Sahara desert and surrounding regions are greening due to increasing rainfall. If sustained, these rains could revitalize drought-ravaged regions, reclaiming them for farming communities. This desert-shrinking trend is supported by climate models, which predict a return to conditions that turned the Sahara into a lush savanna some 12,000 years ago" More info available at Nat Geographical website. Use their search button and key in"Satellite greening". Acacias spreading and thriving in Sudan. Nomads in Western Sahara say "We've never had it so good." As for rapidity of evolution. Check out Howard Bloom's website and in the black column on the left, click on"Instant Evolution:the effect of the city on human genes" He cites some thought - provoking examples of rapid evolution.
  7. Africans will move to the Sahara? Problem solved? Rather than rely on some quotes from National Geographic Kids, better to delve into the literature and get the big picture, as usual. Here's a continental-scale review for Africa, a little long in the tooth but a good starting point: African climate change: 1900–2100 Continental-scale scenario for surface water: Changes in Surface Water Supply Across Africa with Predicted Climate Change Meanwhile, it's best to take changes on the timescale mentioned in National Geographic w/a grain of salt because of course there's always natural variability in play: The impact of decadal-scale Indian Ocean sea surface temperature anomalies on Sahelian rainfall and the North Atlantic Oscillation
  8. Replying to Doug Bostrom, Like most folks I generally accepted that a battle against the encroaching sands was being lost, so the evidence of a reversal, especially in a magazine(kiddies?) as pro-AGW as Nat Geographic, came as a surprise. I am familiar with the PROJECTIONS and PREDICTIONS, and very plausible they sounded too. HOWEVER.....this report as to what is ACTUALLY happening on the ground, is at odds with that which was predicted. What would be a reasonable attitude towards people that make predictions, in your opinion, that don't come to pass?
  9. @AWoL: it is common practice here to provide links to your sources. Do you have the link handy, so we can evaluate how accurate the NatGeo Kids article really is?
  10. A reasonable thing to do would be to read articles by researchers rather than a massively compressed synopsis in a kid's magazine, AWoL. It's worth noting that climate models have a tough time w/predicting precipitation in N. Africa. If you read the literature, you'd know that. You'd also have some idea of the ease with which decadal natural variation can slew precipitation in the region of the Sahara. By the way, are you having some sort of trouble with your caps-lock key?
  11. Sorry ASteel, haven't provided a direct link but if you refer to my earlier post on this subject I do give instructions as to how to reach it. Just checked it.Up and running.Don't go to the kids section for it ain't there. Yes it is probably massively compressed, but by a climate researcher who has been working in the region for 20yrs.....which was why I brought the matter to the attention of this forum. Google National Geographic, type "satellite greening" in the search box, then select title with "Sahara" in it.
  12. AWoL - Here's the link to the Sahara Desert Greening Due to Climate Change article in National Geographic. The article appears to be based on Hickler et al 2005, "Precipitation controls Sahel greening trend". The article also (indirectly) points to Haarsma et al 2005, "Sahel rainfall variability and response to greenhouse warming" indicating increased Sahara rainfall of 1-2mm/day.
  13. @AWoL: I think Doug said it best. Climate models do disagree on N. Africa, and the article acknowledges this: "Even so, climate scientists don't agree on how future climate change will affect the Sahel: Some studies simulate a decrease in rainfall. "This issue is still rather uncertain," Haarsma said. Max Planck's Claussen said North Africa is the area of greatest disagreement among climate change modelers. Forecasting how global warming will affect the region is complicated by its vast size and the unpredictable influence of high-altitude winds that disperse monsoon rains, Claussen added. "Half the models follow a wetter trend, and half a drier trend." Whether it is increased desertification or a greening of some of its regions due to increased hydrological activity, however, it's hard no to see the effects of AGW at work. Obviously, the best outcome would be sustained greening, as this would introduce a vast new carbon sink, however it's unwise to count on this happening. Here is the direct link, if anyone is interested.
  14. Replying to ASteel Yes I take your points. Nevertheless that which has taken place,whilst not condemning outright AGW and its proponents, is however at odds with mass media output. ie we haven't had any glowing reports of this (benign) change in the Sahel. When brought to the attention of Joe Public, invariably his first utterance is "Why haven't we heard of this?"(because he still depends for the most part, but increasingly suspiciously, on the mass media for his information) I think you may have problems like this in the future. Time is wearing on, after all.Time was always a bit of a problem for soothsayers and fortune-tellers.
  15. AWOL I'm absolutely certain that there's some good news for some species aroung the place. I notice some of the things you refer to involve plants and animals moving to more congenial circumstances. Your example of an "exodus" leading to a good outcome is great for a historical example. But there are 2 problems for me there. One, such movements are now highly constrained by the hugs human population, and the effects of habitation and agriculture on grasslands and forests. Two, where I live the only way for existing animals to move is south - not many plants and animals will migrate inland to even more inhospitable conditions. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of south to move to. Unless someone's come up with a few generations evolution schema for land animals to imitate seals and penguins.
  16. I wonder how any of our European readers feel about being so near the tip of the spear: From MacKenzie and Schiedek 2007: ... trends in surface temperatures in the North and Baltic Seas now exceed those at any time since instrumented measurements began in 1861 and 1880. Temperatures in summer since 1985 have increased at nearly triple the global warming rate which is expected to occur during the 21st century and summer temperatures have risen 2-5 times faster than those in other seasons. These warm temperatures and rates of change are due partly to an increase in the frequency of extremely warm years. The recent warming event is exceeding the ability of local species to adapt and is consequently leading to major changes in the structure, function and services of these ecosystems. [emphasis added] From Devictor et al. 2008: ... a 91 km northward shift in bird community composition, which is much higher than previous estimates based on changes in species range edges. During the same period, temperature increase corresponds to a 273 km northward shift in temperature. Change in community composition was thus insufficient to keep up with temperature increase: birds are lagging approximately 182 km behind climate warming.
  17. AWoL, situations such as you have illustrated in the Sahara will (have?) allow the more astute observers to bring together the rapidly accumulating knowledge of drought tolerant plant species suitable for agricultural exploitation, and the cyclic changes as they occur in various locations. Establishing deep rooted perennials that can tap into water reserves well below the surface, that also bring essential nutrients to the surface, will help re-establish ground cover leading to a rebuilding of the top soil and then to the expansion of the cropping or grazing into new areas. One of the limiting factors to plant growth in arid areas is the cold night temperatures, but with increased rain comes increased cloud cover that should see some improvement there. Much may be happening now, there are many enterprising advances happening that fly below the radar with research often trailing practice by a considerable margin due to the tendency to think laterally by those who have to contend in practice with the vagaries of nature and take whatever opportunities as they present themselves, even if it has not been peer reviewed.
  18. @AWoL: I'm sorry, I have a hard time understanding your point. The fact that AGW is apparently causing some greening of the Sahara desert due to increased rainfall is *not* an argument against AGW theory. I'm also unaware that the Sahara is often cited in Mass Media stories about AGW. Furthermore, this is another piece of evidence showing that AGW is real. I don't see how this could "cause problems" for AGW proponents. To the contrary, it goes to show that we are, in fact, having a serious impact on our environment through CO2 emmissions. I also don't get your comment about soothsayers and fortune-tellers. I suggest you stick to the science and not try to divine how public opinion will react to an observed greening of the Sahel.
  19. "Nevertheless that which has taken place,whilst not condemning outright AGW and its proponents, is however at odds with mass media output." As others have pointed out in different ways, Sahel greening will never "condemn" AGW outright or implicitly. You need to work on larger processes if you want to try to find evidence against a warming planet. If you want to be taken seriously, point to single instances, but do so by looking at the single instances within the context of the whole. "ie we haven't had any glowing reports of this (benign) change in the Sahel. When brought to the attention of Joe Public, invariably his first utterance is "Why haven't we heard of this?"(because he still depends for the most part, but increasingly suspiciously, on the mass media for his information)" Invariably? Where is your evidence for this response? And if you think mass media news is in collusion with climate science, you aren't paying attention. "I think you may have problems like this in the future. Time is wearing on, after all. Time was always a bit of a problem for soothsayers and fortune-tellers." Ahhh, the old "modeling a complex system is impossible" game. You do note that you're playing the game, too, yes? You make the implicit claim that the planet is not warming--and certainly not because of humans--because the Sahel is greening. And yet you make this claim without any sort of evidence. Soothsaying indeed! Don't be so provincial. The Sahel may be greening, but the oceans are dying and pine mountain beetles are munching my bloody pine trees.
  20. I think one of the points being made by the article goes back in part to what was quoted by archiesteel at 06:35 AM, that being "Half the models follow a wetter trend, and half a drier trend." Whilst some may feel that this greening is not causing problems for AGW, however it certainly must be causing some problems for some of the modelers. If anyone now accepts that the trend of increasing rainfall validates those half of all models that are predicting a wetter trend, then they must also be accepting that it also invalidates those other half of the models predicting a drier trend which obviously have been built around some rather incorrect assumptions. If those assumptions are now being found to be incorrect, which one must now be willing to accept in this particular case, then wherever the same assumptions have been inputted into other modeling makes those outcomes produced perhaps somewhat similarly suspect also.
  21. @johnd: in order to invalidate *any* model, we'll need to have sustained greening over a significant area of the desert. It's a bit early to start calling out specific models. Your last paragraph is simply an attempt to invalidate climate models in general by introducing a bit of FUD about their precision. However, as the article clearly spells out, it is *North Africa* that is difficult to model. Models tend to agree a lot more about other regions, and there's no reason to believe that the models that eventually get it wrong on North African impact are any less accurate in the rest of their predictions. It seems to me you're fishing for a pretty convoluted argument, here.
  22. The article starts quite factual with stating that biodiversity is under constant thread from direct human interference, Most prominently by destroying (slowly but surely) land for industrial use (food industry) with the latest addition of biological fuels as well as destroying the oceans by depleting them of marine live and using them as trash bins at the same time. In my opinion that needs to be stopped and as far as possible reversed. Reducing CO2 emissions (unless they stem from deforestation) will not help a bit. Besides, if I am not mistaken it is still the tropical rain forests that boast the richest biodiversity which happen to occur where this world counts the highest temperatures. Therefore I completely fail to see how rising temperatures may cause general losses in biodiversity.
  23. h-j-m wrote: "Reducing CO2 emissions (unless they stem from deforestation) will not help a bit." CO2 emissions are causing global warming, which is causing habit loss for species all over the planet. Thus, reducing CO2 emissions definitely would help, and more than 'a bit'. Also: "Therefore I completely fail to see how rising temperatures may cause general losses in biodiversity." Which is happening faster, climate change or the evolution of new species? That is, unless you think that evolution happens over the course of a few decades, it should be entirely obvious that 'warmer = more biodiversity' is an invalid assumption. Species which cannot adapt to the warmer conditions will become extinct and new species will not evolve at the same rate... ergo declining biodiversity.
  24. CBDunkerson, if you can tell me how reducing CO2 emissions can help reforesting the destroyed rainforests all over the world and help to regain the lost top soils (destroyed due to monoculture farming) and regain the lost wildlife habitats destroyed in the process I would like to believe you.
  25. h-j-m, setting aside the primary point that CO2 emissions ALSO causes loss of biodiversity and thus is every bit as worth addressing on that front as the other problems you list... there are also several studies showing that rising CO2 levels may further threaten the rainforests by increasing evaporation and decreasing precipitation in the region. Thus, addressing CO2 emissions can also help prevent further rainforest loss. That would also cause rainforest recovery, but only if the land were allowed to revert.

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