Climate Change Occurring Too Quickly For Wildlife To Adapt

Species have been adapting to climate change – manmade or otherwise – since the beginning of their existence. However, a new study suggests that changes to Earth’s climate and the resulting effects on wildlife habitat are occurring too quickly for species to respond.

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, its magnitude and rate are occurring much faster than over the past 300 millennia – a period that includes three ice ages. In fact, between now and 2100, climate change will be dramatic enough to require species to evolve at a rate 100 times faster than has been proven possible.

The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers and published in the scientific journal PLoS Onefocused on North American rattlesnakes.

The researchers determined that the rattlesnakes migrated an average of just 2.3 meters annually over the past 320,000 years and that their tolerance to climate has evolved about 100 to 1,000 times more slowly. These findings, the researchers said, show that migration has been the only way rattlesnakes have adapted to climate changes, at least in the recent past.

“We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species’  ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years,” said Michelle Lawing, lead author of the paper. “This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Using climate-prediction models for the next 90 years, the researchers found that the rattlesnakes’ ranges would be displaced by 430 meters to 2,400 meters per year, thus indicating that the snakes would be unable to move fast enough to keep up with the changes to its habitat.

Although this particular study focused on only one species, the researchers say that because rattlesnakes depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures, the species is representative of how climate change affects many forms of life on the planet. A warming – or drastically altered – climate, therefore, has the potential to be disastrous to not only rattlesnakes, but other species as well.

New Theory Behind Earth’s Great Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction annihilated nearly all of Earth’s living species. Scientists have proposed many theories for why this occurred, and until now, the most widely accepted explanation for the event had been that volcanic eruptions burned through coal beds, releasing carbon dioxide and other fatal toxins into the environment.

But researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, have uncovered a potential new reason for the mass extinction: mercury.

The study, published in the academic journal Geology, notes that the mass extinction occurred during the time of greatest volcanic activity in the planet’s history. Mercury deposition rates in this period were up to 30 times higher than in today’s volcanic activity, the researchers found. Levels this high could have been catastrophic enough to wipe out life on the planet.

Normally, algae acts as a purifier of toxins.

“Typically, algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans,” says Dr. Hamed Sanei, lead author of the study. “But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage.”

The new research has the potential to change the way scientists view not only the Earth’s past, but also its future.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions,” adds Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, another author of the study. “This is a warning for us here on Earth today.”

However, it also shows how the planet’s resiliency, as well as surviving life forms’ ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

“After the system was overloaded and most of life was destroyed, the oceans were still able to self-clean, and we were able to move on to the next phase of life,” Sanei says.

World of Wonders

Call me a treehugger. No, you won’t find me in Birkenstocks or switching to an all-tofu diet. But I have come to realize – perhaps through a combination of habitat-wrecking oil spills, deadly coal-mine explosions, ozone-layer-depletion-induced climate change (Who can forget the image of a lonely polar bear left to die in solitude while the ice melts beneath his very feet?), water shortages and hormone-stuffed chicken – that we better keep this Earth thing of ours around a little bit longer. You know, we only have like 4.6 billion years’ worth of history to preserve.

This blog will be devoted to all the natural wonders our planet has granted us: the places, the creatures, the cultures. Earth’s given us so much — it’s time we starting giving it a little bit back. Or, at the very least, we can start appreciating what it has to offer.