Species Will Have to Move Fast to Adapt to Climate Change

Animals and plants will both need to adapt at similar paces

Researchers established that animal and plant populations in areas of the world most likely to be affected by climate change in the very near future will have to adapt to their new environment at the same speed. If this is not an option, then they will have to abandon their territories just as fast.

This holds true for both land- and ocean-based species, the team writes in the latest issue of the top journal Science. Global warming is even now causing significant changes in ecosystems around the world, and native species are already beginning to show signs of strain.

The team that conducted the investigation also included scientists from the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). The work was funded and supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

These shifts in habitat characteristics was largely caused by the fact that global temperatures increased by about 1 degree Celsius since the 1960s, according to a recent study. For Earth's temperature to grow by so much over just 50 years, important changes need to take place in the oceans and atmosphere.

This is precisely what climate scientists are observing. “That average rates of environmental change in the oceans and on land are similar is not such a surprise,” explains NSF Division of Environmental Biology program director Henry Gholz.

“But averages deceive, and this study shows that rates of change are at times greater in the oceans than on land – and as complex as the currents themselves,” he adds. The changes are primarily caused by the release of man-made greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide and methane – in the atmosphere.

What is important to know is that species in general – with the exception of humans – are well-adapted to their environments. However, when these habitats change rapidly, animals and plants can get left behind. This is why species move, in search for a habitat similar to the one they evolved to occupy.

Some bears, for example, may choose to move further up the mountain, in search for the cooler temperatures they love. The issue that most troubles scientists is that, at some point, there may be no higher altitude available for the animals to occupy.

Similarly, it could be that a species invading a new environment will eliminate all competition, leading to the extinction of other animals, insects or plant. We must avoid this at all costs, if we are to maintain Earth's biodiversity, investigators say.

“With climate change we often assume that populations simply need to move poleward to escape warming, but our study shows that in the ocean, the escape routes are more complex,” Lauren Buckley explains. She is an ecologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

“For example, due to increased upwelling, marine life off the California coast would have to move south [rather than north] to remain in its preferred environment,” adds the scientist, who is also a coauthor of the Science paper.

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