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Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?

What the science says...

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 five biggest mass extinction events in Earth’s history, and most of the smaller extinction events, were driven by rapid climatic change. When climate changes too fast for species to be able to adapt, extinctions are bound to occur. Figure 1 shows prior extinction events and atmospheric CO2 concentration over the last 420 million years. Each colored circle denotes an extinction event, with the “Big Five” mass extinctions in red (end-Ordovician, which occurred 444 million years ago, is not shown) and lesser extinction events in pink.

Most extinctions have been linked to immense volcanic events, called Large Igneous Province (LIP) eruptions. These events spew billions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere, in many cases triggering marine anoxia (oxygen loss) and ocean acidification due to rapid greenhouse warming. Of the Big Five mass extinctions, the one exception is the end-Cretaceous event. The current scientific consensus is that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago) was primarily caused by a large meteor strike (and a resulting, jarring change in climate). In Figure 1, the past three events (end-Permian, end-Triassic, and end-Cretaceous) are positioned at their respective, estimated short-term CO2 spike levels. These CO2 spikes which triggered their respective mass extinctions are not captured in the grey CO2 concentration curve due to its coarser temporal resolution. 

The largest of the mass extinctions, the Permian Mass Extinction (also known as the “Great Dying), resulted in the loss of nearly 80% of all species at the end of the Permian Era 252 million years ago. During this event, which was triggered by an LIP eruption in modern-day Siberia, global temperatures warmed by nearly 10 °C and the world’s oceans lost up to 80% of their oxygen content. This eruption, which waxed and waned over about 2 million years, is estimated to have released as much as 106,000 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon into the atmosphere. Even at the peak of carbon emissions from the Siberian eruptions (about 0.7 GtC per year), the LIP was emitting 14 times less than our current rate of emissions (9.9 GtC per year). This current trend is not expected to change. Worrisomely, current projections show that global emissions are only going to increase in the near future. 

One myth argues that this change is fine, because animals and plants have adapted to shifts in CO2 concentration or temperature of similar magnitude. For example, dinosaurs thrived when CO2 levels were much higher than today in an ice-free world with high sea levels. It's not the level of CO2 levels that's harmful, or even slow shifts in climate that unfold gradually over millions of years. It's when CO2, and consequently climate, shift so abruptly that life is unable to adapt fast enough. In the end-Permian Mass Extinction CO2 levels jumped from around 500-800 ppm before the extinction, rising to around 4,400 ppm over 40,00 years or so.

When contrarians argue that species will be able to adapt to current climate change because they have adapted to “routine” climate changes in the past, they are committing the fallacy of false equivalence. We cannot compare how species adapted to gradual climate shifts (like ice age cycles) to how they will adapt to future, human-caused change because they take place over different timescales. Comparing rapid, human-caused climate change to the slow, natural climate change of the past is like comparing apples to oranges.

Most large, natural shifts in CO2 concentration have occurred over tens to hundreds of thousands of years or longer. For example, the periods between ice ages and warm periods occur over about 10,000 years (Figure 2), with a total warming of up to 6 °C in each cycle. Comparatively, state-of-the-art climate models predict that global mean temperatures will warm by 2-6 °C in the next 100 years due to anthropogenic climate change. This current rate of warming would be 20-60 times faster than the natural warming rate after ice ages. Today’s shifts in CO2 concentration and global mean temperature due to human emissions are occurring too fast for plants and animals to be able to adapt. To use an analogy: most species may have been able to float through the shallow waves of natural climate variation, but they are not ready for the tsunami of rapid climate change to come. 

Future climate change aside, the natural world has already been under attack for centuries. Since the discovery of agriculture, humans have massively transformed the globe through the expansion of modern civilization, to the detriment of Earth’s biodiversity. More recently, this transformation was kicked into high gear with the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Great swathes of temperate forest in Europe, Asia and North America have been cleared over the past few centuries for agriculture, timber, and urban development. Tropical forests in South America and Africa are now on the front line. Human-assisted species invasions of pests, competitors, and predators are rising exponentially, and overexploitation of fisheries and forest animals for meat have already driven many species to the point of collapse.

The ways plants and animals adapt to changes in their environment have also been severely hampered. In order for many species to migrate large distances – one of the main ways animals adapt to climatic shifts – they would have to cross large areas of human influence. Mass migration in areas of large human population – entwined with crisscrossing, high-speed highways and polluted, dammed-up rivers – is a challenging task. Along with this, it has been shown that climate change has already had an impact on the environmental cues that animals use to determine the timing and navigation of their migratory patterns. Subsequently, these changes in animal migratory behavior have also been shown to have a detrimental effect on the animal’s average lifespan and overall health.

There is much evidence that we are already on the brink of a sixth mass extinction event. Because of human activity, the number of species on the planet is already decreasing. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (an international environmental report with the goal of assessing the impact of ecosystem change on human well-being), 60% of the world’s ecosystems are now degraded and the global rate of extinction is already at 100 to 1000 times that of the “normal” background rate on geological timescales. Because mass extinction events take place over a long time period compared to human life spans, this evidence alone is not enough to definitely conclude the occurrence of such an event. However, we can say with certainty that rapid, anthropogenic climate change will only make things worse for Earth’s biodiversity.

If we fail to prevent catastrophic climate change, there will be many regions of the world (some of which are highly populated) which will become uninhabitable to even us humans. This is based on human physiology and future temperature and humidity predictions under climate change. When temperature and humidity levels are too high – indicated by something scientists call a high “wet bulb temperature” – the human body is not able to cool itself by sweating. Extended periods of these high wet bulb temperatures increase the rate of heat stroke and death in humans. Here in the U.S., large areas of the Mississippi Valley, the South, and Arizona could have almost a month’s worth or more of these dangerously hot and humid days by the year 2050 (Figure 3). When we zoom out to the entire globe, it gets worse, specifically in tropical regions. Right now, only 1% of the Earth’s land is considered a “barely livable” hot zone, mainly within the Sahara and other deserted regions. If emissions continue unregulated and climate change continues unmitigated, this fraction could increase to 19% by 2070. Billions of people live in these potential, future hot zones. Due to the current state of the global economy, many disadvantaged people residing in these potentially deadly places may not be able to move away or adapt.

In summary, the current outlook on Earth’s biodiversity is gloomy. We know that most mass extinctions in the fossil record have been triggered by the rapid onset of global warming due to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. In the past, these emissions were usually due to large, volcanic episodes which occurred over tens to hundreds of thousands of years. On a geological timescale, these changes occurred in the blink of an eye, and this is why they were so costly. The human-caused climate change that is occurring today is similar; since 1850, we have increased atmospheric CO2 levels to the highest they have been in the last 3 to 5 million years. Humans are changing the Earth’s climate faster than animals and plants are able to adapt, and a multitude of evidence points to the occurrence of a sixth mass extinction. Even though this may be depressing, there is still hope. There is still time to reverse the worst effects of man-made climate change, and to do so we must support conservationist efforts and transition to renewable energy. For all of human history we have depended on Earth’s biodiversity, and it now depends on us to save it.

Last updated on 13 November 2020 by fhaychap. 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

Comments

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Comments 26 to 50 out of 51:

  1. CBDunkerson, I just wanted to point out that at the current time loss of biodiversity is due to direct human intervention by far outranking that what can be attributed to global warming. Chances that tropical rainforests are threatened by it are rather slim as studies show that in the tropics forestation is the main factor governing local weather patterns(i. e. they show that deforestation leads to major changes in weather patterns). Some small scale endeavours on the other hand show that rainforest farming (using the biological productivity of rainforests to support the local population) is a viable and sustainable alternative - capable not only to fight poverty but even to allow for modest prosperity -, but they are not getting a chance due to the profits that biological fuels are promising. So far I can only see that in result the global warming theory has led to nothing but an increasing pace of destroying the ability of this globe to support human life.
  2. h-j-m, A problem is not rendered inconsequential if an implementation of a proposed (partial) solution may cause more harm in a given area than it aleviates. Arguing against biofuel farming practices is in no way a valid argument against the effects of global warming.
  3. Hydrogen sulfide is thought to have been a major player in the Permian mass extinction 250 million years ago, because CO2 emissions from the Siberian Traps warmed the atmosphere and oceans, causing the oceans to lose oxygen. With less oxygen, the anaerobic bacteria produce hydrogen sulfide that spreads through the ocean and into the atmosphere and poisons most of the animals on the planet. When we hear about the potentially dire consequences of global warming, why don't we ever hear about hydrogen sulfide emissions from the warming oceans as a result of decreasing oxygen?
  4. The link to "a study I conducted in 2003" doesn't work (http://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Brook_2003_Extinctions.pdf). It may be this one?: http://www.dbs.nus.edu.sg/lab/cons-lab/documents/Brook_etal_Nature_2003.pdf
  5. Another link that doesn't work is in "it left out most ecological detail" (http://www.mncn.csic.es/pdf_web/maraujo/Thuiller_et_al_2004Nature.pdf). It may be this one: http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/ThuillerEtAl2004.pdf
  6. Continuing from here. "the 10k bp mark" From Wikipedia:
    Identifying the exact origin of agriculture remains problematic... ... grains of rye with domestic traits have been recovered from Epi-Palaeolithic (10,000+ BC) contexts at Abu Hureyra in Syria, but this appears to be a localised phenomenon resulting from cultivation of stands of wild rye, rather than a definitive step towards domestication. ... By 7000 BC, sowing and harvesting reached Mesopotamia, and there, in the fertile soil just north of the Persian Gulf, Sumerians systematized it and scaled it up. By 8000 BC farming was entrenched on the banks of the Nile River.

    So, yes, the last glacial retreat was a good thing for the development of agriculture. But your contention that this development took place during a time of rapidly rising temperatures and sea levels is not well supported -- and really makes no difference. However, there is a clear difference in conditions described by Bettinger et al 2009:

    Ice age climates varied at very short timescales (Richerson, Boyd, and Bettinger 2001). Ice core data show that last glacial climate was highly variable on timescales of centuries to millenia ... In comparison, the Holocene after 11,600 BP has been a period of comparatively very stable climate.

    So it appears to have been stability that gave birth to civilization. What we have provoked is rapid change and instability: deeper droughts, worse flooding, wilder extremes from winter to summer. Anecdotally, from a recent trip west: it is clear that the only people who will get a crop this year are those who can afford to buy lots of water. Poor farmers have abandoned their fields; buildings and other infrastructure are in decay. Everywhere you go, creekbeds and streams are dry and people are saying 'it's never been this bad.'

  7. What may be of conversely great concern to this topic is plants and animals that adapt exceptionally well but are pests - most insects, rodents, and weeds will and are adapting to warming trends exceptionally well, in some cases becoming invasive species on entire continents due to the change of climate allowing new habitation. In the same light, the change in climate is putting pressure on "friendly" and "neutral" species, as well as a strong increase is invasive and pest species, which does not bode well for our species even in the short term. It certainly doesn't bode well in terms of comfort - longer term, it won't sit well for meeting the basic needs of all of society as species relied upon for necessities are pushed out by species regarded as pests.
  8. The link to Univ of Texas climate change impact article (marked by the text "timing of breeding, migration, flowering, and so on") is broken. It looks like they've moved the article. I think the link was to this article http://web5.cns.utexas.edu/news/2004/11/global-warming-2/
  9. The author claims in item (B) that a 4 degree or so increase in global temperature will make things hotter than anytime in the past 35 million years. WRONG, at least according to graphs I see of Tertiary temperatures at Google "Tertiary Temperatures" (Images), which show temperatures up to 20 degrees hotter at about that time, even more earlier. So why should I believe anything else you tell me if you so egregioulsy misrepresent such easily available "facts"?

  10. Scott, can you provide a link?  See the "insert" tab above the commenting box.

  11. Regardless of what your link says, Scott, you're not reading carefully:

    "A low-range optimistic estimate of 2°C of 21st century warming will shift the Earth’s global mean surface temperature into conditions which have not existed since the middle Pliocene, 3 million years ago. More than 4°C of atmospheric heating will take the planet’s climate back, within a century, to the largely ice-free world that existed prior to about 35 million years ago."

    It doesn't make the claim you say it makes.  It compares a potential 2100 with the "largely ice-free world" of about 35mya.

  12. Scott...before you simply presume that the post is "egregiously misrepresenting" facts, you should read the paper its referencing, which, lo and behold, has a reconstruction of temperatures through the Cenozoic! It may even be the one you are referring to!  

    That reconstruction indeed shows that there are deep ocean temps in the Eocene era that were substantially greater than today, but those were 55 million years ago. It also shows that the last time temps were consistently 4C higher than current was just prior to the Antarctic glaciation 34 mya. There may have some periods that were a touch more than 4C warmer in the following 10 million years, but that was still 24 million years ago. The point of this post is that we are likely to recapitule tens of millions of years of climate history in the span of a century or two.  

    If you have a reconstruction that says otherwise, link to it. Otherwise we have no idea what you're specifically talking about, and it is therefore impossible to clarify things.

    Then again, maybe you really aren't interested  in actually discussing the evidence.

  13. Following Scott Sinnock's (@34) advice, I searched Google Images for "tertiary temperature".  The most relevant, prominent image was this one (originally from wikipedia):

     

    The data is from dO18 from foraminafora shells on the ocean floor.  dO18 records both the ratio of fresh to salt water, and water temperature.  Consequently dO18 records do not linearly equate to temperature records between different periods with very different ratios of fresh to salt water, as when large quantities of ice are locked up in ice sheets.  Hence the two different temperature scales.

    As Stephen Baines mentions, the paper cited in the OP shows a temperature record for the tertiary.  Indeed, it shows the data in the image above, first in an unmodified form and then adjusted for the size of ice sheets to give a direct temperature measurement (Fig 3(b)):

    As you can see, temperatures did not consistently exceed 4 C above mid-twentieth century values until 35 million years ago.

    Finally, I did see two images that showed temperatures in the 20 degree range.  One showed central european temperatures only, and hence was not representative of global temperatures.  The second was the crude graph by Scotese which is (in its original form), not proxy based, but merely assigns a warm temperature for periods without glaciation, and a cool temperature for periods with extensive glaciation.  It also showed global average temperatures rather than the global temperature anomaly, and therefore showed at most a 7 C increase over modern temperatures at any time in the tertiary.  I do not know what figure Scott Sinnock was basing his claims on, but they are not warranted by the limited evidence he provides.

  14. From clarification in #36, A global warming of 2 deg C is a low range optimistic value and > 4 deg C of global warming by 2100 is a high range estimate. >4 is ~1 deg per 20 years. We are 14 years into the 21st century. What is the global temp increase from 2000 till now?

    We are not on track 14 years into the 21st century. I question that the Earth's crust, atmosphere, and oceans as a heat sink could allow that much change in 100 years. I tried to see the annual fluctuation in Lake superior water temps but they only record surface temps, when avg depth is 183.2 meters.

    Adapting has so far been to .7F in 60 years from 1942 to 2012. What animal, plant or human can't adapt to: NOAA sea level trends: Naples Fla shows 2.4 mm/yr; Daytona shows 2.32 mm/yr. A house in Jupiter, Fla at 14.5 feet above sea level is also 4419 mm above sea level. The recent trend along Fla coast will bring sea water to the Jupiter Fla house doorstep in 1841 years, assuming no changes in continental plate rise or fall over 1841 years. Sounding so many alarms and raising electric rates 50% in 6 years to fight this seems a bit overdone.

  15. At least Polar Bear adaptation is being relieved so far this year. On 2014 being a meltdown year in the Arctic year, there is now 93% as much ice area (May 21st) as record cold year 1979 ice area level. 2014 Peak March to late May melted area is substantially less than in same period of 1979. source: Charctic ISI.

    Response:

    [JH] Your "look squirrel" bloging style is very tiresome and impreses no one reading this comment thread. Please cease and desist posting coments of this nature. 

  16. Not being minded to examine a source used to spread nonsense, I will but point out that the freezy season of 2013/4 left Arctic SIA at 13.5Mkm^2, which is 89.5% of the equivilant 1978/9 figure. The latest SIA is 10.8Mkm^2, which is 89.2% of the equivilant 1979 figure.

    Also, unlike Yogi Bear, the term polar bear is neither capitalised nor the subject of fictional commentary; at least, not on this website.

    Response:

    [JH] I belive that you have directed this coment to jetfuel.

    In the future, please identify the comenter (by name) and coment (by number) that you are respo ding to.

  17. MA Rodger @41, the current (day 142) sea ice extent according to Charctic is 12.592 million km^2.  That is 92.69% (or 93% after rounding) of the 1979 figure of 13.585 million km^2, but only 90.714% of 13.881 million km^2 on day 142 of 1985, ie, he actual record year for day 142 values.  1979 was the record year for maximum ice extent, but not for maximum May extent.

    Jetfuel is very careful to not tell us that the current sea ice extent is only 97.794% of the equivalent 2007 sea ice extent (12.876 million km^2), and 97.794% of the equivalent 2012 extent (12.876 million km^2).  That there is currently less ice than in the former, and current record September minimum ice years, and that the former record minimim extent ice had more ice in day 142 than did the current record shows how pointless are the statistics jetfuel is quoting.

    As jetfuel well knows if he has perused charctic, in May sea ice extent variability is at a minimum.  At this time of year, there is the least difference between all years so that current values of sea ice extent provide almost no predictive value in predicing eventual September minimums.  It also means that at this time of year there is a maximum ice melt for years with the maximum March extent relative to other years - and it means nothing in terms of determining how low the summer sea ice extent will be.

    This repeat and greatly extended series of such posts by jetfuel were he takes data out of context and milks "skeptical" conclusions from them regardless of their actual import (or lack of import).  He does it so consistently, and persistently in the face of correction that he is (IMO) not entitled to the presumption of honest mistakes, and I am astonished that his record of misinformation, sloganeering and repetition has not yet resulted in his loosing the privilege of posting at SkS.

    Returning to the topic, polar bears are adapted to hunting on ice packs.  That makes them poor hunters on land, so that summer months are lean month with many polar bears near starvation by the end of summer.  The most immediate threat from global warming to polar bears is from the extended duration before they can return to the ice after summer due to the more extensive summer sea ice melts.  The slightly reduced sea ice extents in March are of almost no consequence for polar bears, and also have no bearing on the critical summer sea ice extent values. 

    Response:

    Please do not respond to any future comments by jetfuel until a Moderator has had a chance to ascertain whether or not it is in full compliance with the SkS Comments Policy. From here on out, jetfuel is on a very short leash. His/her shennanigans will be stopped one way or another.  

  18. Ahhh, but Tom, jetfuel said "area." 

    CT SIA for the current date is 88.23% of 1979's value and 103.15% of the satellite period record minimum for the date (2011). 

    And just to be complete, jetfuel, PIOMAS volume for the last day in April (PIOMAS comes out monthly) was 69.65% of its value for 1979 and 100.5% of the record minimum (2011), after having spent much of March and April 2014 as the record minimum.

  19. Tom, Per my source Charctic, considerably less melting for this most recent 8 days (251,000 sq km) vs the same ~week in 1979 (415,000 sq km) could cause ponderance to some. Thus, in warmer Arctic Ocean water, from a thinner ice pack, and with 401 ppm CO2, ice is dissapearing slower than way back when everything had warmed less. I was just noting that the ice area @time lines were converging over that short time. Yes, that is a general trend for most years. At least that part is behaving normal this year.

    Unfortunately, yes, there is 7% less ice than in 1979. Actually 2014 = 2010 amt this day.

    Response:

    [PS] This is a/ offtopic, b/ cherry-picking - and suspiciously like trolling. If you wish to discuss science then do so in scientific way. If you are here to amuse yourself with outrageous arguments and trolling, then please find somewhere else for your entertainment. Further offtopic comments will be deleted. 

  20. jetfuel, are you aware of the model projections for Arctic sea ice loss?

    Take your answer here.

  21. DSL, it seems ice loss outpaces most projections. Is only getting down to 4.6-5.3 in 2014 unreasonable at this point? Multiyear ice is up from 2013, but ice area trails 2013 for this day.

     

  22. "Tom, Per my source Charctic, considerably less melting for this most recent 8 days (251,000 sq km) vs the same ~week in 1979 (415,000 sq km) could cause ponderance to some."

    That really is the most ridiculous cherry pick I have ever seen on a climate blog.  A whole eight days, wow that can't possibly be just weather noise!!!

  23. jetfuel:

    As stated above, your future posts will be carefully scrutinized by Moderators to make sure they are in full compliance with the SkS comments Policy. If they are not, they will be dealt with as appropriate by a Moderator.

    Your propensity to post "look squirrel" comments tells us that you are not here to engage in meaningful discussions of climate science. Our Moderators and regular commenters have more important uses of their time and energy than tracking and  responding to your shennanigans.  In other words, you are on the cusp of losing your privilege to post comments on this website. 

  24. Tom Curtic @42.

    Thanks for the pointer to the SIE data source. Sadly there are those who cannot understand (or probably refuse to understand="shenanigans") the simplest use of scientific terms - in this case Area and Extent. The same apprarent ignorance seems true for the effects of Arctic topology on the rate of ice loss - it slows up as it retreats through the Bering Straits. Of course, there comes a point when accumulative shenanigans become statistically irrefutable.

  25. Speaking of migrations, over the past few years, there has been a increase of Canadian Geese who have taken up permanent residence in the San Francisco South Bay Area. The strange part about it is that the weather here is actually warm, not cold. The birds used to be seen here for the winter months, now they are here all year round, hanging at public parks, golf courses, and school fields.

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