A small turtle from the eastern U.S. A species of trout native to Glacier and North Cascades national parks. Grizzly bears. A prairie orchid. These are among the ten plant, fish, animal, and bird species listed in a new report as being the "hottest" species imperiled by climate change.
Hyperbole aside, the report from the Endangered Species Coalition is just the latest warning of extinctions throughout the "wild kingdom" that will occur unless climate change is muted. Similar reports were issued earlier this year by the National Parks Conservation Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council. A new focus in this latest report is how the authors looked at species already listed as either "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.
This year, our America’s Hottest Species report focuses on wildlife, fish, birds and plants on the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species that are particularly imperiled by global warming. The vast majority of these species were “listed” due to other causes. Only the polar bear and two corals have been listed as a result of the threat of global warming. However, scientists are increasingly seeing that climate change is like a bulldozer shoving species, already on the brink of extinction, perilously closer to the edge of existence.
A definitive list on the ten most impacted species is impossible, given the number of species feeling the heat from global warming. Therefore, the species included here are meant as ambassadors, representing the kinds of threats that many endangered species face across the nation. And listed species aren’t the only ones in jeopardy. Climate change is dangerous to a host of other species. The Pacific walrus, the Pika, the Wolverine, the Boreal toad, Mason’s skypilot, and the Bearded, Ringed and Spotted seals are all increasingly losing ground, quite literally, due to climate change. These species, and many others, are going to need significant help to survive.
Understandably, a common thread runs through all these reports: Unless climate change is slowed, habitats across the world, including those in national parks, will be altered. Land managers will confront a host of changes that will force them to reassess long-held practices. Non-native species -- plants, animals, fish, birds -- might very well become natives, vegetative regimes could change, drought-conditions could be exacerbated, runoff from snowpack and glaciers will be altered if not turned off.
"According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 20 to 30 percent of the world’s species will be at an increased risk of extinction if global temperature rises above 1.5 to 2.5° C above pre-industrial levels. Driving this many species to extinction will result in a planet that has lost its beautiful diversity and many of the benefits that nature provides," Leda Huta, the coalition's executive director, writes in the introduction to the report. "While some of us may throw our hands up in hopelessness at this news, there is a much better response—working for change. Our political leaders finally appear to be on the cusp of taking serious action to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But, they won’t succeed without an outpouring of support from Americans for strong climate change legislation and strong international agreements."
Here's a glimpse at some of the report's findings, and some of the national parks involved. You can find the entire report attached below.
The rising temperature of the ocean as a result of global warming is the single greatest threat to this coral species, as well as coral reefs more generally worldwide. When corals are stressed by warm ocean temperatures, they experience bleaching — which means they expel the colorful algae upon which they rely for energy and growth. Many corals die or succumb to disease after bleaching. Mass bleaching events have become much more frequent and severe as ocean temperatures have risen in recent decades. Scientists predict that most of the world’s corals will be subjected to mass bleaching events at deadly frequencies within 20 years on our current emissions path.
A related threat, ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, impairs the ability of corals to build their protective skeletons. Scientists have predicted that most of the world’s coral reefs will disappear by mid-century due to global warming and ocean acidification unless carbon dioxide pollution is rapidly reduced.
As late summer flows are affected by global warming, fewer rivers will be able to provide ample cold water for bull trout. Bull trout distribution is also related to air temperature, so the heightened ambient air temperatures of the bull trout’s habitat caused by global warming are reducing their survivable habitat. The warming climate also affects precipitation and timing in the Rockies, which is predominately driven by snowfall and snowmelt. The timing and duration of spring runoff could dramatically affect stream temperatures, habitat creation, and therefore the spawning activities of the bull trout.
Canada lynx are especially vulnerable to global warming. In order to maintain a competitive advantage over other predators, this species depends on high elevation habitat with cold, snowy winters. As temperatures rise with global warming, the snowpack and forests that lynx rely on are predicted to move upward in altitude and northward in latitude. As their habitat shifts upward in elevation, current lynx populations will likely become more isolated. Thus, protecting habitat at higher elevations as well as important corridors linking those areas is just as critical as protecting current Canada lynx habitat in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species.
Salmonids are cold water fish which typically die when exposed for very long to freshwater temperatures above about 20º C. (72º F.) Global warming has pushed the average summer temperatures of many west coast river systems above that mortality threshold, killing many fish. Global climate change is also diminishing total river flows throughout the northwest and California, as well as changing the basic hydrology that these fish evolved with. In many areas their already limited range is likely to contract. Depleted genetic diversity as well as accelerated habitat loss due to human development has reduced their ability to respond to these stresses. Changing ocean conditions, including ocean acidification, are causing additional stresses to these populations from global warming.
Climate change is altering the oceans physically and chemically as warmer waters expand, ice covers recede, circulation patterns change, and the pH of the oceans declines. Leatherbacks (and all six other species of marine turtles) will be affected by freshwater from melting glaciers, changes in salinity and oxygen, and altered ocean chemistry as shifts occur in currents, key habitats, and the range and abundance of prey species.
Changing ocean conditions are especially threatening in the Pacific where leatherback nesting populations are declining dramatically. Warmer-than-usual waters of El Nino years significantly reduce oceanic productivity by inhibiting the mixing of surface water with deeper, cold waters, resulting in less available food near the surface and reducing the reproductive potential of leatherbacks and other marine species.
Global climate change threatens reproduction on nesting beaches throughout the leatherback’s range. The sex of a developing leatherback embryo is dependent on the temperature of incubation in the nest, with warmer temperatures producing females and cooler temperatures producing males. Warmer beaches initially will produce more female offspring, to the detriment of the production of males; hot beaches ultimately will be lethal to embryos. Seasonal variation in rainfall and drought will alter incubation conditions and increase embryo losses. Other effects of climate change include increased numbers of hurricanes and severe storms, associated beach erosion, nest loss and the destruction of nesting habitat.
Bog turtles are extremely sensitive to the effects of global warming. The turtle’s survival is closely tied to its delicate habitat. Erratic weather patterns resulting from global warming will disrupt the fragile balance key to the turtle’s survival. By altering hydrological cycles, global warming will either dry out or flood the turtle’s habitat. In addition to bog turtles needing a very specific habitat, much of the remaining habitat in the Northeast has been fragmented apart by roads and development. As the changing climate alters the availability of the turtle’s current habitat, they will have very limited
ability to migrate to places that could be more suitable.
Prairie potholes are the depressions that remained when glaciers receded from the Midwest 10,000 years ago. These potholes make up part of the seasonal wetlands of the Great Plains. In order to thrive, the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid relies on regular rainfall to maintain these distinctive wetlands.
Global warming may threaten this balance by significantly altering the hydrological cycles of the Midwest. Unlike many other parts of the country, climate models indicate that the upper Great Plains may experience an increase in the total amount of precipitation each year. However, while the overall amount may be higher it is predicted that this will be experienced with significant increases in Spring rain, but also increased drought in late Summer. Both the possible Spring flooding and Summer drought could harm the orchid.
The drought of the 1980s significantly reduced flower production and pollination when many of the perennial plants failed to regenerate. As these wetlands begin to dry, invasive plants such as the leafy spurge will crowd the region and eliminate the conditions required for the orchid’s survival.
As for what to do, the report calls or Congress to pass meaningful climate change legislation, and for the Obama administration to take a significant leadership role in battling climate change.
The United States clearly needs to demonstrate leadership on climate change. Negotiating an effective and binding international agreement is essential. Furthermore, the Department of the Interior and the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have crucial roles to play in helping our nation’s wildlife, fish and plants survive the global warming impacts we have begun experiencing. Global warming must be factored into all endangered species related decisions now made in order to help prevent species from disappearing forever. The Interior Department‘s Fish and Wildlife Service has taken an important initial step by drafting a global warming plan for their areas of work. This is good progress and it should be complimented by similar efforts in all the other land, water and wildlife agencies of the U.S. Government.