which both the Arctic and Antarctic experienced this winter made the news around the world. Indeed, scientists were astonished to see that in November, a time when the region enters its coldest period, sea ice retreated in the Arctic¹. A similar phenomenon was noted in 2013 when a chunk of sea ice as large as Denmark was removed from the Arctic at a time when sea ice is usually growing¹. It is therefore no surprise that the Earth’s surface temperatures in 2016 were the highest temperatures ever recorded².
The impacts of global warming and climate change are becoming increasingly clear, but they not only impact our natural environment. They have impacts on all its inhabitants, both fauna and flora. Our biodiversity is affected by changes in climate and other extreme events. At the same time, climate change also worsens other threats like habitat destruction, overexploitation, and disease³. The impacts of climate change on species are clearly illustrated by looking at the cases of the following species, prioritised on the basis of the detrimental effect climate change is having on them.
One such species is the reindeer found in Eurasia and the Caribou which is a North American version of the same species. Both species are critical to local people for food, shelter, fuel, tools, and other cultural items. But the Caribou and reindeer depend on the availability of abundant tundra vegetation and good foraging conditions for their survival, especially during the calving season. Unfortunately, climate-induced changes to the Arctic tundra are going to cause vegetation zones to shift significantly further north, reducing the natural habitat of these herds⁴. Climate change is therefore changing the natural habitat of the two species of reindeer by limiting their food sources and therefore the potential for them to successfully procreate.
Rhinos are already under extreme pressure, being one of the primary species that is being poached worldwide. Climate change is therefore exacerbating an already fragile species. Black rhinos have proven to be susceptible to droughts. For example, in 2009 when Kenya suffered severe droughts, farmers lost about 80% of their cattle and native wildlife, including the Black Rhino, which was severely affected. The drought created in turn an increase in the poaching of rhinos for their horn as locals struggled to survive. With droughts set to become more often due to climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that many species will be impacted as a result⁵.
And while droughts can have a negative impact on some animals, increased rainfall – also a consequence of climate change – can also have the same effect. High rainfall can negatively impact on birds, causing reproductive failures and poor chick condition. For example, in west Scotland, golden eagle populations declined by 25% when there was a significant increase in rainfall in May. Indeed, flooding has a negative impact on almost all mammals and on ground-nesting birds with free-ranging chicks⁶.
Sea turtles are another species put at particular risk due to climate change. Rising seas and stormy weather affects turtle species by eroding or destroying many of the beaches where they lay their eggs. On top of that, it appears that hotter sands also cause greater numbers of sea turtles to be born female. While in the short term, this may increase turtle numbers but in about a century or so, it is likely that significantly warmer sands will cause such a preponderance of females that the species could become extinct. It is also important to note that hotter sand can also cause complete nest failure⁷.
The examples of these species show how climate change can have a detrimental effect on our biodiversity. The stakes are particularly high as already the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that if global temperatures increase more than two to three degrees F above current levels, up to one-third of the species on Earth could be at risk for extinction. What is more destabilising our ecosystems in this way can only worsen the effects of climate change as habitats are rendered weaker and cannot adapt or mitigate the effects of climate change thereby creating a vicious circle⁸.