Global changes in temperature have already impacted every aspect of life on Earth from genes to entire ecosystems, with increasingly worrying consequences for humans.
This is the conclusion of a new study co-authored by the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Climate Change Specialist Group (SSC CCSG), published in the journal Science.
‘We now have evidence that, with only a ~1ºC of warming globally, major impacts are already being felt. These range from individual genes changing, significant shifts in species’ physiology and physical features such as body size, and species moving to entirely new areas.’
DR BRETT SCHEFFERS
Study lead author and member of the IUCN Climate Change Specialist Group
The study found more than 80% of ecological processes that form the foundation for healthy marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems – such as changes to genetic diversity or seasonal migration – are already showing signs of distress and altering as a response to climate change.
‘The extent to which climate change is already wreaking havoc with Nature is simply astounding. These findings send a very clear message to world leaders gathering for climate change negotiations in Marrakech: cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the ecosystems on which we depend is an urgent matter of self-preservation.’
IUCN Director General
The study analyses 94 ecological processes, as documented in peer-reviewed literature.
Many of the climate change impacts on species and ecosystems affect people, according to the authors, with consequences ranging from increased pest and disease outbreaks to reduced productivity in fisheries and decreasing agricultural yields.
Changes in ecological processes may also compromise the capacity of ecosystems to help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, the authors warn.
Healthy ecosystems contribute to climate mitigation and adaption by sequestering substantial amounts of carbon, regulating local climate and reducing risks from climate-related hazards such as floods, sea-level rise and cyclones, the report states.
When a large number of processes are all impacted within a single ecosystem, they scale up to produce what researchers call ecological regime shifts – where one ecosystem state shifts to an alternative state. This can be seen in kelp forests that have turned into rocky barrens in temperate seas.
On land and in the oceans, many ecosystems are becoming unrecognisable, with Arctic tundra ecosystems becoming dominated by boreal and temperate organisms, and temperate marine ecosystems becoming dominated by tropical organisms.
‘We are simply astonished at the level of change we observed, which many of us in the scientific community were not expecting for decades.
‘It is no longer sensible to consider this a concern for the future and if we don’t act quickly to curb emissions it is likely that every ecosystem across Earth will fundamentally change in our lifetimes.’
DR JAMES WATSON
Senior author and member of the IUCN Climate Change Specialist Group
However, the study also points to hope as many of Nature’s responses to climate change could be used to inform human adaptive measures. For example, improved understanding of the adaptive capacity in wildlife can be applied to our crops, livestock and fisheries. This can be seen in crops such as wheat and barley, where domesticated varieties are crossed with wild varieties to maintain the evolutionary potential of crops under climate change.
‘This study has strong implications for global climate change agreements. Countries’ current commitments reduce global temperature rise to around 3ºC, but we’re showing that there are already serious impacts right across biological systems at 1ºC.
‘If we’re going to keep natural systems delivering the services we rely so heavily on, it’s imperative that we step up our efforts.’
DR WENDY FODEN
Co-author and chair of the IUCN SSC Climate Change Specialist Group
Click here to read the full report, ‘The broad footprint of climate change from genes to biomes to people’.
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