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Cli­mate change will cause wide­spread global-​scale loss of com­mon plants and animals

pub­lished 16 May 2013 | mod­i­fied 05 April 2014

Castle marshes nature reserveMore than half of com­mon plants and one third of the ani­mals could see a dra­matic decline this cen­tury due to cli­mate change – accord­ing to research from the Uni­ver­sity of East Anglia (UEA).

Research led by Dr Rachel War­ren, from the Tyn­dall Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change Research at UEA, pub­lished on 12 May in the jour­nal Nature Cli­mate Change looked at 50,000 glob­ally wide­spread and com­mon species and found that more than one half of the plants and one third of the ani­mals will lose more than half of their cli­matic range by 2080 if noth­ing is done to reduce the amount of global warm­ing and slow it down. This means that geo­graphic ranges of com­mon plants and ani­mals will shrink glob­ally and bio­di­ver­sity will decline almost everywhere.

Plants, rep­tiles and par­tic­u­larly amphib­ians are expected to be at high­est risk. Sub-​Saharan Africa, Cen­tral Amer­ica, Ama­zo­nia and Aus­tralia would lose the most species of plants and ani­mals. And a major loss of plant species is pro­jected for North Africa, Cen­tral Asia and South-​eastern Europe.

But act­ing quickly to mit­i­gate cli­mate change could reduce losses by 60 per cent and buy an addi­tional 40 years for species to adapt. This is because this mit­i­ga­tion would slow and then stop global tem­per­a­tures from ris­ing by more than two degrees Cel­sius rel­a­tive to pre-​industrial times (1765). With­out this mit­i­ga­tion, global tem­per­a­tures could rise by 4 degrees Cel­sius by 2100.

The study was led by Dr Rachel War­ren from the Tyn­dall Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change Research at UEA. Col­lab­o­ra­tors include Dr Jeremy Van­Der­Wal at James Cook Uni­ver­sity in Aus­tralia and Dr Jeff Price, from UEA’s school of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences and the Tyn­dall Cen­tre. The research was funded by the Nat­ural Envi­ron­ment Research Coun­cil (NERC).

This broader issue of poten­tial range loss in wide­spread species is a seri­ous con­cern as even small declines in these species can sig­nif­i­cantly dis­rupt ecosystems
Dr Rachel War­ren, lead author, Tyn­dall Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change Research, UEA »

Dr War­ren said: “While there has been much research on the effect of cli­mate change on rare and endan­gered species, lit­tle has been known about how an increase in global tem­per­a­ture will affect more com­mon species. Our research pre­dicts that cli­mate change will greatly reduce the diver­sity of even very com­mon species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-​scale bio­di­ver­sity would sig­nif­i­cantly impov­er­ish the bios­phere and the ecosys­tem ser­vices it provides.

We looked at the effect of ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures, but other symp­toms of cli­mate change such as extreme weather events, pests, and dis­eases mean that our esti­mates are prob­a­bly con­ser­v­a­tive. Ani­mals in par­tic­u­lar may decline more as our pre­dic­tions will be com­pounded by a loss of food from plants. There will also be a knock-​on effect for humans because these species are impor­tant for things like water and air purifi­ca­tion, flood con­trol, nutri­ent cycling, and eco-​tourism.

The good news is that our research pro­vides cru­cial new evi­dence of how swift action to reduce CO2 and other green­house gases can pre­vent the bio­di­ver­sity loss by reduc­ing the amount of global warm­ing to 2 degrees Cel­sius rather than 4 degrees. This would also buy time – up to four decades – for plants and ani­mals to adapt to the remain­ing 2 degrees of cli­mate change.”

The research team quan­ti­fied the ben­e­fits of act­ing now to mit­i­gate cli­mate change and found that up to 60 per cent of the pro­jected cli­matic range loss for bio­di­ver­sity can be avoided.

Prompt and strin­gent action to reduce green­house gas emis­sions glob­ally would reduce these bio­di­ver­sity losses by 60 per cent if global emis­sions peak in 2016, or by 40 per cent if emis­sions peak in 2030, show­ing that early action is very ben­e­fi­cial. This will both reduce the amount of cli­mate change and also slow cli­mate change down, mak­ing it eas­ier for species and humans to adapt.
(Dr Rachel Warren)

Infor­ma­tion on the cur­rent dis­tri­b­u­tions of the species used in this research came from the datasets shared online by hun­dreds of vol­un­teers, sci­en­tists and nat­ural his­tory col­lec­tions through the Global Bio­di­ver­sity Infor­ma­tion Facil­ity (GBIF).

Co-​author Dr Jeff Price, also from UEA’s school of Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, said: “With­out free and open access to mas­sive amounts of data such as those made avail­able online through GBIF, no indi­vid­ual researcher is able to con­tact every coun­try, every museum, every sci­en­tist hold­ing the data and pull it all together. So this research would not be pos­si­ble with­out GBIF and its global com­mu­nity of researchers and vol­un­teers who make their data freely available.”

(Source: UEA press release, 12.05.2013)

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