Current research suggests that winners in this transformation will be
adaptable species that are expanding their ranges, including many weeds
and pests, and also cold-sensitive, invasive species like the Burmese python in
Florida, said Peter Alpert, a program director in environmental biology
at the U.S. National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.
The losers, Alpert said, will likely be the species that are highly specialized
in what they eat or where they live, especially those whose habitats disappear
That might include species such as koalas, which depend mainly on eucalyptus
for survival, and the many animal and plant species that live only on isolated
"You have to hope that they can change fast enough to keep up with
it," he said. "Species have experienced swings like this in the
past, but [the changes] have probably taken a thousand times longer."
Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial
Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, South Africa, and Pörtner, an animal physiologist
and marine biologist based at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven,
Germany, highlighted six species that are already in decline due to climate
Orange-spotted filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris). The filefish dwells
in coral reef habitats,
on which it is totally dependent, and which themselves are declining in
part due to climate change. In addition, the orange-spotted filefish is
highly sensitive to warm water: The animal went extinct in Japan during
an episode of warmer ocean temperatures in 1988.
Quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma). This succulent tree is endemic to (and emblematic
of) the arid west of South Africa and Namibia. Chapter Four of the fifth
IPCC report "shows, for the first time, that the rate of climate change
can be just as important for species survival as the magnitude, and that
trees are the most vulnerable to rapid change," Scholes said. A well-studied
species, the quiver tree is unable to grow and disperse quickly enough
to keep up with a fast-changing climate. (Related: "Rain Forest Plants Race to Outrun Global Warming.")
The large predator's story is well known: The Arctic sea ice on which the
animals hunt is progressively disappearing during the summer. Sea ice is
forming later in the fall and disappearing earlier in the spring. "As
the Arctic sea ice retreats, polar bears have to exploit alternative food
sources, such as on land," the scientists said, and some hungry polar bears have turned to goose eggs.
But it's not the best alternative, Steven Amstrup,
chief scientist for Polar Bears International, noted in a previous story.
"Some media reports have suggested that this might mean polar bears
could just come ashore and eat terrestrial foods and somehow do fine without
the sea ice," Amstrup said. "We have absolutely no evidence that
they have the ability to do this." (Read "On Thin Ice"
in National Geographic magazine.)
These Antarctic birds mostly live on tiny crustaceans called krill. Krill
live on the undersides of ice sheets, where they find refuge and algae
as food. But as Antarctic sea ice retreats, krill populations are falling—meaning
that the penguins have to migrate farther to find food. Spending a lot
more energy to find food makes penguins less successful at breeding and
raising young, the scientists said.
North Atlantic cod. Overfishing has historically caused numbers of this
fish to plunge, but its populations usually bounce back. Not so off the
northeastern coast of North America, where populations have not recovered
since crashing in the 1990s. "The entire ecosystem seems to have changed,"
the scientists said, and "this may involve a climate influence due
to changing ocean currents and the influx of cold Arctic waters."
(Read more about overfishing's impact on New England cod.)
Acropora cervicornis and coral worldwide.
This reef-building animal "is in decline almost everywhere, for a
combination of reasons," said Pörtner, including warming waters—coral
are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature. Acropora cervicornis, for
instance, used to be widespread in the Caribbean but is now restricted
to a few small areas, likely due to warming. (Read more about coral and global warming.)
EXTINCT: Golden toad (Bufo periglenes). Along with the Monteverde harlequin
frog (Atelopus varius), also of Central America, the golden toad is among
the very small number of species whose recent extinction has been attributed
with medium confidence to climate change, according to Scholes and Pörtner.
Last seen in 1989, the golden frog lived in mountaintop cloud forests that
have disappeared due to drought and other climatic changes. Other confounding
factors are involved, such as the deadly chytrid fungus,
which has killed off many amphibians worldwide.
(See: "Photos: Ten Most Wanted 'Extinct' Amphibians.")
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
Radical Action Needed
Trying to slow the rate of climate change "is critical for the future
of many species," Scholes and Pörtner said.
"To spare many thousands of species, not only do we need to radically
reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we also have to do it soon,"
Potential climate change solutions include
making vehicles, homes, and buildings more energy efficient and increasing
wind and solar power, hydrogen produced from renewable sources, and other
Meanwhile, the world can "greatly assist by reducing the other pressures
facing species, principally habitat loss, overharvesting, and pollution;
and by ensuring that species have unimpeded pathways for movement."