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Friday, July 11, 2008

Climate Change Changing More Than the Climate: Species Extinction

Ann-Marie Luciano

There are a myriad of predictions as to how climate change will affect our lives in the future, from drought to rising ocean levels. In my opinion, one of the most menacing threats is extinction. Scientists predict that rising temperatures and the resulting affects on weather and ocean current patterns could result in massive extinction of animals and plants.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that 30% of all of the world's species will face extinction by 2050 if global warming continues at the current rate. At the recent WallaceStegner Symposium on Alternative Energy, Stanford University biologist Terry Root reported that we are witnessing the 6th mass extinction in Earth's history. He stated that the extinction rate due to greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will be about 20-30% of species and has already started.

The fact that some species are already being pushed to extinction is of great concern to scientists. Birds, the "canaries in the coal mine" of environmental health, are already suffering significant declines in population. Penguins have been particularly hit hard. According to University of Washington biology professor Dee Boersma, the population of the world's largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins in Argentina peaked at about 400,000 pairs between the late 1960s and early 1980s and now is just half of that total.

Although extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process, for many species climate change has accelerated this process hundreds of years before its time. But this doesn't necessarily mean that it is all doom and gloom, as some plants and animals are highly adaptive to a changing environment. A recent study conducted by Syracuse University and the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) published online in the July 7 issue of the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that many plant species can adapt to long-term changes in temperature and rainfall. As explained by the study co-author, "our study suggests that if the changes in climate occur slowly enough, some plants have the ability to respond, adapt and thrive in their existing location."

I'd prefer not to bank our future on the hope of species adaption, however. When there are estimates that a quarter of all medicine is sourced from the Peruvian Amazon, and when our food supply is based on being able to grow crops and raise animals, my hope is that our leaders will act on this information and make a concerted effort to significantly reduce carbon emissions. There isn't much time left to reverse the damage that has been done and as the world population increases the difficulty of this task increases. In an election year we all have the perfect opportunity to raise these issues with the candidates and insist on action rather than talk.

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