Humans Pummeling Mother Nature Against the Ropes: Scientists Predict which Round She Gets K.O.’d
There are numerous studies describing the impact of human-caused climate change on various ecosystems. (See my MET103 – Global Climate Change class notes and Impact of Climate Change web page for more information.) Now, a study just published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature (Mora et al., 2013) tells us the timing of when ecosystems will be forced into an alien environment by human-caused climate change. For the world as a whole that year could be as early as 2034 (2047 ± 14 years). Imagine somebody telling you that New York could feel like an alien planet in 21 years. Just like species in nature, we would have to move, to adapt, or end up dead.
The latest scientific evidence proves that 100% of the warming since the 1950s was caused by human activities, primarily due to the
burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. These dirty energy sources, when burned, release billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon that is rapidly warming the oceans, air, and ice. As I blogged in Global Warming isn’t Tomorrow – It is Now, humans have already caused heat extremes to become more common and more intense. We are stressing our planet beyond its bounds and this new study is showing us that we are quickly nailing our coffin shut.
Mora et al. (2013) included 344,000 species and processed 89,712 years of data comprising 1,076,544 monthly global maps to tease out when various ecosystems would be continuously out of their normal bounds. Normal bounds were determined using data from 1860 to 2005. We must keep in mind that even during that time period (and especially during the past few decades) human-caused climate change was already changing nature. Thus, the “normal bounds” is not really normal for many ecosystems and the KO years determined by this study are likely to be too conservative (i.e. alien environments arrive sooner than projected).
The results for several ecosystem hotspots appears in figure 3 from the study. RCP85 and RCP45 are carbon emission scenarios. RCP4.5 is the “best-case scenario” where humanity wakes up and aggressively reduces its global carbon output. RCP8.5 is the business-as-usual scenario meaning that billions of tons of carbon will be emitted every year with little attempt to rein the pollution in. Unfortunately, we are following the worst-case RCP8.5 emission scenario and that is why many ecosystems will be forced into an alien environment much sooner than 2047. In fact, when considering ocean acidification, the surface oceans were KO’d in 2008.
Because warming is greatest at the Poles and least in the tropics, much focus has been on Arctic ecosystems. However, this study shows that tropical ecosystems are most at risk because tropical species suffer from even very small changes to their environment. As early as 2020, the tropics may be experiencing unprecedented climates.
I highlight two of these regions (Amazon Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef) below for those wondering why we should care about tropical and ocean ecosystem survival:
- Amazon is over 55 million years old and is the most bio diverse location on Earth.
- Ecosystem has remained mostly unchanged in the previous 1-2 million years.
- Amazon absorbs 1.8 billion tons of CO2 per year.
- Release of this stored carbon would lead to even more rapid global warming.
- Amazon is home to 30 million people, 350 indigenous communities, 20% of all known birds, 130,000 invertebrates, over 150,000 higher plants, millions of insects.
- The Amazon Rainforest has been described as the “Lungs of our Planet” because it produces more than 20 percent of the world oxygen.
- Currently, 121 prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. And while 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.
- The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells. 70% of these plants are found in the rainforest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rainforest.
- Vincristine, extracted from the rainforest plant, Periwinkle, is one of the world’s most powerful anticancer drugs. It has dramatically increased the survival rate for acute childhood leukemia since its discovery.
- In 1983, there were no U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers involved in research programs to discover new drugs or cures from plants. Today, over 100 pharmaceutical companies and several branches of the US government, including giants like Merck and The National Cancer Institute, are engaged in plant research projects for possible drugs and cures for viruses, infections, cancer and even AIDS. (savetheamazon.org)
- The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) off the northeast coast of Australia is over 2300 km long and is the only living structure that can be seen from space.
- GBR composed of over 3000 reefs and 94 islands.
- May be as old as 18-20 million years.
- Offers protection for the coastline from storms that can cause human fatalities and expensive repairs to our homes and businesses.
- Home to 400 species of coral, 500 marine algae, 1500 fish, over 5000 mollusk, and more than 40 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, turtles, and rare dugongs.
- These species are very connected and any disruption in one can have a cascade effect on others.
- Coral has a symbiotic relationship with an algae that is not very tolerant of increased water T. When these algae are expelled at higher T, “bleaching” results (algae give corals their colors).
- Major global bleaching events 1983, 1988, 1995, 2005, 2006, 2010.
- The fishing industry depends on coral reefs because many fish spawn there and juvenile fish spend time there before making their way to the open sea.
- The Great Barrier Reef generates more than $1.5 billion dollars every year for the Australian economy, from fishing and tourism. (queensland museum)
Want to see when your region’s ecosystems are forced into an alien environment? Visit this interactive link and click on a dot close to home. New York/Long Island region ecosystems are faced with an alien climate by mid-century.
The Mora et al. (2013) study should be a wake-up call for action. We must begin to rapidly reduce our carbon emissions if we wish to keep ecosystems that are so vital for our health, food supply, and economic vitality. Sadly, even if we take urgent action and begin to follow the RCP45 best-case scenario, we will only be pushing the dates of alien environments by 20 years into the future. We have already done permanent damage. There is no need to keep hitting Mother Nature while she is down.
When species are stressed by climate change they can do one of three things: 1) Move, 2) Adapt, 3) Die. The sooner we act to reduce emissions, the more likely options #1 and #2 will be. If we keep dumping billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon into the air and water, option #3 becomes more and more likely.
Dead species cannot feed us, cure us, or make us money.
Tropics will be the first region to be hit hard by global warming, Neela Banerjee – Los Angeles Times
By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Justin Gillis, New York Times
D.C. climate will shift in 2047, researchers say; tropics will feel unprecedented change first, Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post
‘Uncomfortable’ climates to devastate cities within a decade, study says, John Roach, NBC News
New York Faces Climate Point of No Return in 2047, Report Says, Alex Morales, Bloomberg BusinessWeek
Tropics first region on globe to hit a new climate era, research finds., Douglas Fischer, The Daily Climate
Global warming – a world of extremes and biological hotspots, John Abraham, The Guardian