Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Climate Change: More Than Just Melting Ice

           The terms “global warming” and “climate change” produce a wide variety of emotion for people.  For some, those emotions are fear or concern, while for others the terms bring about skepticism and doubt.  The myriad of feelings people have about this does not change the meteorological data that has been collected since the late 1800’s.  Based on ocean temperature readings over the last hundred or so years there is no doubt that the global temperature is increasing (5).  Throughout the eons, the Earth has had many fluctuations in temperatures and climates, so why is the most recent climate change different?  The most recent change in climate is happening exponentially faster than it has in the past.  The last time the planet was at this temperature it had increased at a slow rate over a period of 4,000 years, now the same temperature increase has happened in just over a hundred years (5).    It is highly suspected and supported, that the cause of this rapid increase in temperature is the increase in human activity (5).  Jeremy Hoffman, a paleoclimatologist at the Science Museum of Virginia, states, “we are putting heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere faster than the Earth was able to do by itself for 66 million years” (5).  This rapid change in the environment could lead to rapid changes for humans and animals in cold, as well as warm climates. 
“It is time for humans to become part of the
 solution to the global problems we’ve created.”

Data from NASA and NOAA shows that the year 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking the record for the third year in a row (2).  The future cannot be known for sure but the effects of these record temperatures are already being felt.  The warmer, drier conditions in the western United States has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of land burned by wildfires (2).  The oceans are absorbing some of the excess carbon dioxide which is good for those of us on land but it creates a more acidic environment for aquatic species (2).  This acidic environment alters behavior as well as development for some species (2).  One of the more talked about effects is the melting of ice and the raise in sea levels.  Raising sea levels by even a few feet can drastically alter coastal communities (2).  Increasing temperatures in these typically cold climates causes species to move into new, more livable areas.  BBC news reports that the Qinghai province of China has seen common leopards moving higher in elevation to escape the warm weather (4).  This migration pushes them further into the territory of the snow leopard (4).  These two cats have always had a slight overlap in territories but climate change is condensing them into a smaller area (4).  One fear is the possibility of conflict between the two species (4).  Another fear is that the snow leopard will be forced further up in elevation where there is less food (4).  Moreover, the common leopard is more adaptable and will likely be able to out compete its snowy relative for resources (4).  The already endangered snow leopard could be forced into a smaller area with less resources and more competition, which could end up causing an extinction event (4).
“Climate change and increased competition could
be the nail in the coffin for this endangered,
majestic cat in the wild.”


Although it may not be intuitive, warm climates can be drastically affected by climate change.  Chelsea Harvey, of the Washington Post, examined the changing environment around the equator (3).  Increasing the temperature in this already hot environment could cause organisms to migrate further than they ever have before (3).  Between the northern and southern tropics temperatures rarely fluctuate, it’s just hot.  Organisms, humans included, will tend to move into a cooler area when the place they are living gets too warm.  To get into a cooler, more livable area organisms would have to migrate either north or south to get out of this tropical zone, which could mean a trek of up to 600 miles, unless they increase their elevation (3).  Either way a move that far is near impossible for many creatures.  Populations would likely face severe losses and possibly extinctions, depending on the species.  Although there might be some organisms that survive better, the majority are already adapted to where they are so they will either have to adapt, move, or face population decrease.  Furthermore, a migration like this would dramatically increase the concentrations of organisms living in these more temperate environments.  When concentrations increase, the possibility for spreading disease increases, and competition increases, all of which can lead to a whole slew of new problems (3). 

All of this movement to cooler climates has been documented in recent years (1).  At an international conference in Australia, a study on thousands of animals was presented which showed half of the organisms monitored have changed their environment either higher in elevation or toward the poles (1).  The changing climate is already having negative effects on many organisms and if the rate of temperature increase does not change there may be no hope of saving some of the more vulnerable organisms(1).  However, populations of plants and animals fluctuate naturally and the changes we are noticing might be just because we are paying more attention (1).  To distinguish whether the movements are natural or not we could examine whether or not the movement has negative effects.  It could be assumed that species affected negatively by changing geographic location is caused by climate change but this would be quite difficult to prove.  Species would not be moving to an area if the one they are currently living in filled all of their survivability needs.  Fluctuations in populations as well as in global temperature are certainly normal but there is no denying that the rate of fluctuation is directly correlated with the increase in human activity.  The earth has historically done a fine job of handling gradual fluctuations, but the most recent, catalyzed fluctuation might be too drastic for some organisms.  There is likely no way to stop this rapid climate change and temperature increase at this point but with the proper education and outreach we could at least do some damage control and slow the rate of increase.  If nothing changes every living thing could be forced to either adapt or move into a more livable area.  Unfortunately we cannot all live in a zone of perfect weather conditions so competition and conflict are sure to arise, leading to the demise of plenty of plants, animals, and even humans.

  1. AFP-JIJI. (2016, February 11). Climate change ‘forcing species to move’. The Japan Times. Retrieved from
  2. Greene, S. (2017, January 18). Wildfires, sea level rise, coral bleaching: Climate change is already here. LA Times. Retrieved from
  3. Harvey, C. (2016, June 9). Climate change could force huge migrations for people and animals living near the equator. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
  4. Khadka, N. S. (2017, January 17). Concerns over first snow and common leopards found in same area. BBC News. Retrieved from
  5. Kahn, A. (2017, January 20). The last time the oceans got this warm, sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are today. LA Times. Retrieved from

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