Furry Critters with a Hairy Problem – Climate Change Pushing More Species To Extinction, Costing People

International Congress for Conservation Biology logoWhether big cats on U.S. soil or tiny bats around the world, more and more species are being driven toward extinction and crammed into smaller slivers of habitat as a result of unchecked climate change. That’s bad for the diversity of life on Earth and often bad for people, too, according to recent research by conservation biologists and other analysts. But amid the gloom, some promising strategies might protect people from harsher climates while preserving nature.

At the annual conference of the Society for Conservation Biology, held earlier this month in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 128 of the nearly 1,100 research presentations, posters, and papers dealt exclusively with the impacts of climate change on the Earth’s species. The lesson learned: that this impact is nearly always negative. Perhaps twice as many additional studies considered climate change alongside other major drivers of extinction such as population growth and habitat destruction, making climate change the biggest issue at the conference. Not even 10 years earlier, climate featured heavily in only half as much of the Society’s work.

Biologists aren’t the only ones predicting big deaths from runaway climate change. Computer scientists and bioinformatics specialists (who merge detailed biological data with high-powered computing) have recently weighed in with equally serious forecasts, such as those for America’s lynx and jaguar, which face a double whammy of warming habitats and human encroachment.

As we’ve frequently reported on ReVolt and other Worldwatch blogs, loss of biodiversity can have major impacts on people’s welfare. Research on climate-affected bat populations, for example, provides information on the decline of an important crop pollinator. And losing the lynx and jaguar could bring significant overall economic losses, studies suggest, because these species contribute to ecotourism, fur trapping, and the control of rodents and deer. Meanwhile, climate change-driven bioinvasions, such as the projected spread of Argentine ants, can replace economically beneficial local species and damage cash crops.

Yet there’s some cause for warm fuzzies despite the dire predictions. New case studies show how preserving biodiversity can protect people from the worsening climate impacts. Natural adaptation measures include restoring salt marshes to buffer worsening storm surges, or conserving fruit and nut trees to shade against hotter temperatures while providing food for markets. Still, without stronger measures to curb changing climates, many of the fluffy fellows under scientists’ watch face a bare future.

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