Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

10.2: Climate Change

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Global climate change is also a consequence of human population needs for energy, and the use of fossil fuels to meet those needs. Essentially, burning fossil fuels, including as oil, natural gas, and coal, increases carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps heat energy from the sun, resulting not only in an average increase in global temperature but also in changing precipitation patterns and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. Scientists overwhelmingly agree the present warming trend is caused by humans. See the Climate Change chapter for a detailed description its cause and impacts. A few examples of how climate change impacts biodiversity are described in the paragraphs below.

    Climate change is recognized as a major extinction threat, particularly when combined with other threats such as habitat loss. Scientists disagree about the likely magnitude of the effects, with extinction rate estimates ranging from 15 percent to 40 percent of species committed to extinction by 2050. By altering regional climates, it makes habitats less hospitable to the species living in them. The warming trend will shift colder climates toward the north and south poles, forcing species to move (if possible) with their adapted climate norms. For example, one study indicates that European bird species ranges have moved 91 kilometers (56.5 miles) northward, on average. The same study suggested that the optimal shift based on warming trends was double that distance, suggesting that the populations are not moving quickly enough. Range shifts have also been observed in plants, butterflies, other insects, freshwater fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

    The shifting ranges will impose new competitive regimes on species as they find themselves in contact with other species not present in their historic range. One such unexpected species contact is between polar bears and grizzly bears (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). Previously, these two species had separate ranges. Now, their ranges are overlapping and there are documented cases of these two species mating and producing viable offspring.


    Map shows that grizzly bear range has expanded northward, and it now overlaps with that of polar bears.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Historically, grizzly bear habitat extended from Mexico through the western United States and into the mid-latitudes of Canada. Since 2008, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) have been spotted farther north than their historic range, a possible consequence of climate change. Their range now extends to the northern tip of Canada and throughout Alaska. As a result, grizzly bear habitat now overlaps polar bear (Ursus maritimus) habitat. The two kinds of bears, which are capable of mating and producing viable offspring, are considered separate species as historically they lived in different habitats and never met. However, in 2006 a hunter shot a wild grizzly-polar bear hybrid known as a grolar bear, the first wild hybrid ever found.

    Climate gradients will also move up mountains, eventually crowding species higher in altitude and eliminating the habitat for those species adapted to the highest elevations. Some climates will completely disappear. The rate of warming appears to be accelerated in the arctic, which is recognized as a serious threat to polar bear populations that require sea ice to hunt seals during the winter months. Seals are a critical source of protein for polar bears. A trend to decreasing sea ice coverage has occurred since observations began in the mid-twentieth century. The rate of decline observed in recent years is far greater than previously predicted by climate models.

    Changing climates also throw off the delicate timing adaptations that species have to seasonal food resources and breeding times. Scientists have already documented many contemporary mismatches to shifts in resource availability and timing. For example, pollinating insects typically emerge in the spring based on temperature cues. In contrast, many plant species flower based on daylength cues. With warmer temperatures occurring earlier in the year, but daylength remaining the same, pollinators ahead of peak flowering. As a result, there is less food (nectar and pollen) available for the insects and less opportunity for plants to have their pollen dispersed. For migrating birds, timing is everything – they must arrive at their summer breeding grounds when food supplies are at their peak, so that they can rebuild their body fat and reproduce successfully. In some areas, birds are showing up early, before flowers open or insects hatch, and finding very little to eat.

    Ocean levels rise in response to climate change due to meltwater from glaciers and the greater volume occupied by warmer water. Shorelines will be inundated, reducing island size, which will have an effect on some species, and a number of islands will disappear entirely. Additionally, the gradual melting and subsequent refreezing of the poles, glaciers, and higher elevation mountains—a cycle that has provided freshwater to environments for centuries—will be altered. This could result in an overabundance of salt water and a shortage of freshwater.

    Finally, increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere react with ocean water to form carbonic acid, a phenomenon called ocean acidification. In combination with warmer temperatures, ocean acidification is responsible for coral bleaching, the process by which coral expel the algae that typically conduct photosynthesis within the corals. Ocean acidification can also dissolve the calcium carbonate skeletons formed by the coral. Overall, climate change plays a major role in the loss of nearly one third of coral reefs.


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 10.2: Climate Change is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .