Climates change. That’s a fact of nature. But Earth’s climate today is changing so dramatically that it’s transforming land and sea, affecting all forms of life.
“There will always be a minority that manage to thrive in relatively sudden new conditions,” says Thomas Lovejoy, a George Mason University conservation biologist and a National Geographic fellow. “But the vast majority will be terribly battered,” if not crushed.
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Higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gases are just the beginning of this ride. Next come extreme weather (including extensive drought), shifting breeding and migration seasons, and changing food availability, new disease patterns, rapid ice melt, and rising seas. Each change begets a host of others: Effects run far and wide.
Change can be good for some—a longer spring with more food, a comfortable niche to call home, a stressful migration avoided. But as the layers build and warming continues, winners may hit new limits and lose their edge.
This isn’t the stuff of the future. The effects of an altered climate are evident now.
“There’s no going back,” says the University of Queensland’s James Watson, who directs the Global Climate Change Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Everything is changing.” Wildlife that’s enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years is being pushed and tested like never before.
And our predictions of “winners” and “losers” haven’t always been spot-on, he says: “We’ve rarely gotten right how bad it will be. The degree of melting at the Poles and its ripple effects [on wildlife] have been staggering,” for example. The sensitivity of many coral ecosystems to temperature and storms is another. “There’s a lot to grapple with.”
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