“Climate change is no longer some far off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.” Barack Obama
Last year the worlds leaders gathered to sign a historic agreement which would bring us together in combating the threat of climate change. 178 nations came together to pledge how they would play a role in preventing global average temperatures from rising more than 2C as well as maintaining temperatures at 1.5 degrees, in what was generally regarded as a “historic and ambitious” move.
However nearly a year later we have lost our first species to the impacts of climate change and scientists are warning that we are already disturbingly close to that 1.5 degree target. Furthermore a study published in Nature declares that the pledges made at Paris are not ambitious enough to keep temperatures below 2C. Worrying news for the ice caps as NASA decry that melting Arctic ice is the “new normal”.
The traditional thought was that as it is warming faster the Arctic would suffer the most dire consequences of climate change, yet increasingly it is now thought that the fragile tropical ecosystems will be the worst victims of man-made global warming. If this is the case how will the Paris agreements help these unique places?
Tropical ecosystems often contain species highly adapted to living in a specific and narrow temperature range. Indeed a 2C temperature increase could prove fatal to numerous species. Worse still is the secondary impacts of a warming planet, it is not simply a temperature increase which would harm these ecosystems; ocean acidification, extreme weather and increasing sea levels will also play their part. At key risk we find coral reefs, mangroves, cloud forests and the rainforest.
Tropical reefs are one of the most important ocean ecosystems, covering just 1% of the oceans surface, they are home to 25% of the worlds marine species and provide an income to millions of people. They have already been hit hard by coral bleaching events. In the last year we have witnessed the worlds longest global coral bleaching which destroyed 50% of the Great Barrier Reef as well as coral reefs across the globe.
Below is a timelapse video showing how corals violently react to bleaching events:
This is the 3rd global bleaching event to hit since 1998, and has been triggered by a rise in temperature. This event was caused by an increase of 1C thus if the scientists are right and we don’t manage to keep temperatures under 2C the consequences for coral reefs are unimaginable.
Coral reefs can recover from bleaching events however this is only if the events are infrequent and the waters do not remain too warm. Many scientists claim that the 1.5C target set in Paris is the limit at which we stand to lose our tropical coral reefs, with this target already nearly met and 3 mass bleaching events in the last 20 years things aren’t looking good for them.
Meanwhile rainforests are at threat from changing weather patterns. Rising temperatures are changing the rainfall levels and causing drought in places like the Amazon rainforest. As the temperature increases these droughts are likely to increase, so too is the risk of wildfire.
Currently the Amazon is drier than any year since 2002 and the risk of fire from July to October exceeds levels in 2005 and 2010 where huge swathes of the rainforest burned. This means that any fires started by illegal deforestation (a key cause of fire in the rainforest) are likely to spread further and destroy more habitat.
The latest study shows that with a temperature increase of 2C species will need to relocate up to 1,000km away in the space of 50 years in order to keep within their current temperature parameters. This of course relates to the flora of the rainforest as well as the indigenous people who call the rainforest home. Anything that doesn’t move, adapt or survive the fires will go extinct.
It is predicted that some habitats will be able to simply relocate to avoid the warming temperatures. Scientists believe that in order to survive cloud forests will have to migrate uphill and have already documented certain species attempting this within the forests.
Cloud forests are probably the most vulnerable tropical ecosystem as they exist in a hugely niche environment, requiring specific temperatures and moisture levels. They require almost constant cloud cover to survive. It is feared that climate change may shift the cloud cover away from regions where these forest occur. Furthermore there are several potential problems with these habitats relocating.
Firstly it may not even be possible, cloud forests in Peru have been prevented from moving into the habitat above them due to an unknown reason. Relocated forests and their fauna will also run into human-dominated landscapes causing conflict and may even run out of room as they reach the top of the mountain if temperatures continue to rise.
There are substantial risks riding on the Paris agreement as its legacy will shape our planet well into the next centuries. If the targets are met and the planet only increases to 2C then 5.2% of all species face extinction from climate change. Every increase in the Earths temperature, increases the chances of the extinction rates going up and habitats being altered irreversibly.
In order to protect tropical ecosystems it may not be as simple as cutting carbon emissions, even if targets are met the world has already warmed 0.9 degrees Celsius. It may be that more traditional conservation may come into play as a mitigation measure. Conserving and protected large, climatically complex and interconnected areas will give species a chance to move and become climate refugees in order to adjust for climate change. For those species who have nowhere to run, we will have to make a hard decision on whether we intervene. Even if we limit global warming, tropical habitats are still under threat from the damage we have already caused.
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