Educational Series: Countless Animals Are In Danger From Climate Change

By Nick Engelfried
There’s no denying it (though some politicians and corporations try): human-caused climate change is here and it’s changing our world in fundamental ways. The major consequences for people are well known and include rising sea levels inundating coastal cities, more intense hurricanes threatening our coasts, droughts and floods destroying farmland, and much more. But for those who love animals and wildlife, it’s important to keep in mind that humankind’s impact on the climate has implications for countless other species. Many animals’ very existence is threatened by the changing climate.

Below, we discuss just a few of the many animals who are in worsening trouble as greenhouse gases from humans’ addiction to fossil fuels build up in the atmosphere. These species’ fate is a reminder of why all animal-lovers need to be concerned about climate change–and take action to help stop it.

Polar bear

This is one species affected by climate change that almost everyone knows about–and with good reason. The most iconic animal of the Arctic, polar bears depend on year-round sea ice for their survival. The bears hunt, travel, and in some parts of their range build dens to raise their cubs on ice. Some of their most important prey animals, such as ringed and bearded seals, are themselves dependent on sea ice and at high risk from a warming climate. This means polar bears are literally starving to death as sea ice melts and their prey vanish with it.

There is still scientific uncertainty about exactly to what degree polar bears might be able to adapt to climate change by shifting their range to areas where there is still year-round sea ice. However, what is certain is that the more Earth’s overall climate warms, the less room there will be for polar bears to roam in the Arctic. For this magnificent species to have a future it is imperative that we drastically reduce the carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels and other human activities.

Salmon

The migration of adult salmon from their feeding grounds in the ocean, back to the inland streams where they were born, is one of the most spectacular phenomena in nature. However, salmon already face many threats to their survival–from dams to water pollution–and climate change is making things worse. The migrations of many salmon are precisely timed to coincide with when rivers and streams will be swollen with meltwater coming down from the mountains. As the climate changes, meltwater may be reduced or come at different times of year. Among other things, this means less cold water flowing in streams at the times when salmon need it most.

Not only are salmon themselves a magnificent animal–they are also a keystone species that many other animals depend on. From orca whales to grizzly bears, numerous other kinds of wildlife will be affected by declining salmon numbers. Scientists warn that if overall global temperatures increase beyond two degrees Celsius, salmon populations and the other species who depend on them could disappear forever.

Florida manatee

Manatees are gentle giants of tropical and subtropical ocean waters. For countless generations these plant-eating marine mammals have thrived in the waters off Florida–but now increasingly severe hurricanes threaten their survival. According to a report released by the Center for Biological Diversity, worsening hurricanes endanger manatees by pushing them far out to sea or even stranding them inland. In 2016, a hurricane’s storm surge left seven manatees helplessly stranded in a golf course pond.

While it’s unclear whether climate change will increase the total number of hurricanes in manatee habitat, storms are getting more severe and deadly as the climate warms. Worse hurricane seasons threaten dozens of coastal cities and have quite rightly gotten attention for their impact on humans. However, what’s often lost in the news coverage is that these storms can be equally fatal for animal species like manatees.

African elephant

The world’s largest land animals may seem to symbolize strength and power, but they might not survive the effects of climate change. Much of the African continent where these majestic animals live is already very dry–and access to fresh water is a must for elephants. Reduced rainfall and increasingly severe droughts in their habitat threaten the survival of not only elephants, but countless other species of African wildlife as well.

Most elephant babies are born during the rainy season, when there is plenty of water they can access without having to travel vast distances. Changing rain patterns and an overall decrease in precipitation could therefore have a severe impact on newborns’ survival. Furthermore, as water sources disappear elephants and other wildlife become increasingly dependent on those rivers and waterholes that do remain. This concentrates their populations in specific areas, increasing the risk of negative human-elephant interactions and potentially making them more vulnerable to poachers.

Wolverine

Famous for their impressive jaw strength and ability to face down much larger animals, wolverines are extremely vulnerable to a warming climate–in part because they require deep snow to raise their young. Mother wolverines dig their dens in the snow, which provides protection for them and their babies. Already a rare species, wolverines will see their habitat shrink dramatically as climate change continues.

Despite threats to their survival from climate change and habitat fragmentation, wolverines have not yet been listed by the federal government for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Conservation groups have fought for years to give this species much-needed protections, and government officials’ failure to act could spell doom for wolverines in the contiguous 48 states. By pushing for wolverines to be listed, we can ensure their habitat is better protected so as to give them the best possible chance of adapting to climate change.

Coral

Though many species look like strange aquatic plants or weirdly sculpted rocks, coral are in fact animals related to jellyfish and sea anemones. Each mass of coral is composed of hundreds of tiny individual animals known as polyps. Together, countless numbers of polyps create vast coral reefs that shelter thousands of marine species and make up some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet. Unfortunately, the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere poses an existential risk to coral and the other animals who depend on them.

While much of the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere and warms the climate, some of it is absorbed by the oceans. This causes ocean waters to turn more acidic, a condition that slows coral growth. Warmer ocean waters also threaten coral, as polyps are very sensitive to temperature. The full long-term effects of ocean acidification and warmer waters on coral are still unclear, but we know they will be deeply harmful. The faster global carbon emissions stabilize and begin to decline, the better the chances that at least some coral reefs will survive.

How you can help

Countless species of animals are already feeling the effects of a warming globe. Fortunately, while the impacts from climate change cannot be completely eliminated, most scientists agree there is still time to prevent worst-case scenarios. Rapidly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels–as well as factory farming, deforestation, and other activities that worsen climate change–will give many animals a fighting chance at survival.

There is much that each one of us can do to lessen our own carbon footprint, from taking public transit to using energy efficient appliances. However, climate change is such a huge challenge that individual actions on their own are not enough. One of the best ways you can help save animals from climate change is to become and advocate and push for policies that reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based energy–whether at your place of work, in local government, or even by contacting your members of Congress about national climate policy. Only if enough of us speak out can we turn the tide for animals suffering in a changing climate.

Photo credit: ajoheyho

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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