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Where the wild things are: how climate change affects the natural world

Image credit: image source, alamy, getty images, science photo library

Climate change is affecting the natural world. Can technology help conservationists protect animals before it’s too late, or are there other more pressing threats for them to deal with?

In September 2016, a dead fin whale washed up on a Devon beach. Over the last few months, 30 sperm whales have beached around the British, German, French and Dutch coasts. Early in October, 6,000 Pacific walruses arrived on a beach in north-west Alaska. Around the same time, an Exeter University study concluded that Cornish cod may have trouble reproducing when they move northwards along the British coast, and Manchester University researchers claimed that the natural world might soon face the crisis of species splintering into isolated populations.

These are just a few effects that climate change is already having on the natural world. As global and local temperatures rise, land and marine habitats change, affecting the animals reliant on those habitats.

The sea ice where the Alaskan walruses previously gathered has receded to the point where surrounding waters are too deep for the walrus to dive to the bottom. Cod in certain regions use specific vocal sounds and may not recognise cod from cooler, northern waters. Some experts say that the beached sperm whales were in the northern parts of the North Sea searching for squid, which are resilient animals that thrive as waters get warmer. The whales then moved into the shallower southern waters, where they became stranded.

The world has experienced climate change before, most often in the distant, prehistoric past. However, according to Alasdair Davies, senior technical specialist at the Conservation Technology Unit of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the difference between then and now is that previous climate change was natural and usually happened gradually. “Faced with natural climate change, animals can adapt and evolution has done that for many years,” he says. “The problem with human-induced climate change is the sheer speed. It’s too quick for the animals to adapt.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says a 1.5°C average rise in temperature may put 20-30 per cent of species at risk. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) believes that most ecosystems will struggle if the planet warms by more than 3°C.

The most recent IPCC report (2014) said that many animal species had already changed their range and numbers, or shifted seasonal patterns as a result of climate change. According to WWF’s 2012 Living Blue Planet report, populations of marine animals had already declined by 49 per cent between 1970 and 2012. The report says that the ocean has absorbed 30 per cent of the carbon caused or produced by humans and 90 per cent of the excess heat.

Faced with this, conservationists need data about animal behaviour, location and movements. Then they can make predictions about what threats the animals may face and adapt their own work accordingly, before the impacts are too great to reverse. 

However, according to Mark Urban, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Connecticut, there’s a major problem. No one knows for sure which species are really at risk and why.

This October, a Manchester University study claimed that Cape mountain zebra were splitting into isolated groups because they’d been conserved in inappropriate areas. This, the researchers claimed, was bad for reproduction, the animal’s genetic resilience and its long-term survival.

Urban explains that conservationists need specific models that gather information around key climate-change parameters. He argues that current correlational models are too simplistic and focus only on where the species lives right now and its climate. “From this, we predict that in the future, as long as those conditions exist, a particular species will survive,” he says. “This misses out on all of the really important biology of the species: how they interact with the environment and each other, if they can adapt and evolve and how the organism actually experiences the changes in its climate.”

For instance, if a grazing animal like a giant panda is reliant on one plant, bamboo, the effect of climate change on that plant needs to be looked at.

The nature conservation body ICUN says the world could lose one third of its bamboo forests over the next 80 years. Urban adds that predictions also need to consider how well a species can disperse and move through the landscape, or whether there’s a road, city or dam in the way.

Twenty universities are involved in the project. The aim is to incorporate all the necessary biology into one model. “You put in all these sophisticated elements of biology and play out what happens under different climate-change scenarios,” Urban says. “Then you get a more accurate picture of whether a species will win or lose.”

Urban adds that these models will be ready within the next three years. “We should then be able to focus conservation efforts on biological processes that are most important in determining a species’ survival for the future,” he says. “Some models already focus on one parameter, maybe physiology or evolutionary factors. We want a model that takes in all the aspects.”

That gives conservationists three years to collect the information to put into these models, information which Urban says is lacking for nearly all species.

For Davies at ZSL, this means localised research. “An animal’s response to climate change is often very local,” he says. “You won’t get an accurate picture of how a species responds by conducting general surveys over large areas.”

ZSL conservationists are using electronic tags to monitor the nesting behaviour of green sea turtles in Principe, an island in the Gulf of Guinea, where beaches are threatened by rising sea levels.

In Antarctica, ZSL and Oxford University researchers are using time-lapse cameras to monitor Antarctic penguins’ responses to melting ice caps. Penguins prey on krill, and these small crustaceans are already moving away from the ice caps where the penguins live. The cameras take photographs every minute, 24 hours a day. The photos show changes in the number of penguins, their nests and how close they are to the sea as the levels change.

The sea turtle tags have a 15km range and use lithium batteries that last up to a year. Each tag contains an open wireless transmitter, GPS and an accelerometer. Davies explains that such a tag would usually have a switch that automatically turns on when the turtle comes up for air and sends data to a satellite. These new tags collect data at sea and when the turtle comes back to the beach, the tag transmits the data to a base station on a nearby palm tree and then on to ZSL databases, where staff analyse the animal’s behaviour.

“For animals with a bigger range, like an African wild dog, you could put in a number of base stations over a wider area,” Davies says. “Traditionally, to do that, you’d have to rely on mobile networks that aren’t always available in wild places.” 

Davies adds that technology like this needs to be affordable for conservationists with small budgets. “We have to think about how we can take tiny little radio chips that cost a few dollars and use these to transmit data from birds, reptiles, any species you want to assess,” he says. “If we don’t, we’ll run out of time, because climate change is here now.”

Other conservationists are using technology to monitor the effects of climate change on animals. This summer, a team from Dalhousie University in Canada sent underwater drones with built-in voice recognition software into the Atlantic Ocean to look for endangered right whales. The whales had previously disappeared from their usual breeding grounds.

The drones look like torpedoes and are fitted with a wide array of sensors and hydrophones to capture the whales’ calls. Whale sounds travel extremely long distances under water, thousands of kilometres in some places, experts believe. The drones dive 200m and surface every two hours to report their findings via satellite to a research website. The right whales eventually turned up further north, in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Microsoft engineer Mike Sinclair has devised a wolverine scent dispenser that consists of a low-powered circuit board and code in metal, bear-proof casings. Conservationists have put the dispensers in the animal’s North American territories - those parts most at risk from the effects of climate change.

In Melbourne Zoo, Australia, researchers are using computer games to investigate orangutan intelligence, particularly their capacity to solve problems. This could be a vital indicator for the species’ ability to deal with future habitat changes.

In theory, it all looks quite simple. Conservationists use technology to help solve the problems climate change has brought to the natural world. That technology will eventually give them the information they need to understand the effects of climate change and save animals.

Unfortunately for the conservationists and sadly, for the animals, there are other influences to contend with.

On the whole, the people who run the planet are more interested in wealth, profit and economic growth than the fate of animals. Some just regard green environmental policies as bad for business.

In August, a Reading University study claimed that the world is already close to breaking its climate change target of a 1.5°C rise in temperatures since pre-industrial times. Global temperatures peaked at +1.38°C last March and April, and were over 1°C above the baseline every month. According to figures released in October, both the UK and the USA look set to miss their carbon emissions targets, set at last year’s Paris Conference.

In the UK, right-wingers have been lobbying the government, post Brexit, to ditch EU environmental regulations and climate change goals. Conservative MP David TC Davies [not the Brexit Minister David Davis] recently attacked the BBC for accepting “hook, line and sinker the so-called scientific consensus on climate change.” Donald Trump’s plan to build a fence along the USA-Mexico border, should he become president, would hinder movement of wildlife, threatening many species that will need to continue moving freely in that area, as temperatures increase. Trump has called climate change “a hoax” and “bull****.”

Professor Sarah Bexell from Georgia State University believes that climate change should be seen not as some separate force of nature but as another manifestation of human impact on the environment: “like poaching, habitat clearing to build new roads, dams and cities, mining, bottom-trawling on the oceans,” she says.

In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people on the planet. Now, there are 7.4 billion and the United Nations thinks this could rise to 11.9 billion by 2100. In 2014, the WWF’s Living Planet report said that it would take 1.5 Planet Earths to manage the global rate of consumption and four planets to sustain the current US rate of consumption.

Bexell believes that conservationists need to focus their efforts on encouraging people to be more conscientious and mindful about their consumption habits and childbearing choices. “Talking about the choice whether or not to have children can be very emotional and heated, but we have to get our heads out of the sand,” she says. “We also need to put pressure on big businesses and politicians who pursue economic growth at the cost of all semblance of health of our planet, its people and other animals.” 

In October, a University of Queensland Wildlife Conservation Society report concluded that many species will have disappeared as a result of other human-made threats long before the full effects of climate change are felt. Researchers found that three-quarters of the 8,688 species they surveyed were exploited for commerce. Half had their habitats turned into commercial farms, whereas only 19 per cent were affected by climate change.

Bexell thinks that conservationists need to use social media to get more people to think about animals in a positive, loving and compassionate way. “We’ve never had the ability to reach so many people,” she says.

She adds that there are already social media campaigns out there, doing just this, such as those run by the US-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Bexell also likes padddtracker.org, which monitors protection areas that have been downgraded, downsized and degazetted (the loss of an entire protected area). “People hear all about it when someone creates a new marine-protected area or a nature reserve. Yet they don’t hear about it when we lose one because humans need that land or those waters,” she says.

In reality, it doesn’t really matter whether climate change, overpopulation and consumption, or other forms of human exploitation and influence, is the biggest threat to wildlife. All that matters is that each of these is a threat. A big one. A dead animal or an extinct species is a dead animal or extinct species. The animal itself does not care whether it has been killed by climate change, poachers or habitat-clearing for industry.

The WWF’s 2014 Living Planet report found that the world has lost over half its vertebrates since 1970. There are now 90 per cent fewer African lions, 80 per cent fewer turtles and eight different snake species have declined by over 50 per cent.

Freshwater ecosystems have lost 75 per cent of their animals. There are now more African forest elephants killed by poachers each year than there are elephants born. It took Indian farmers and vets less than 20 years to unintentionally kill off 99 per cent of vultures: people used an anti-​inflammatory drug, diclofenac, on cattle, vultures later ate the cattle carcasses and died of kidney failure.

The West African black rhino, the golden toad and the baiji dolphin have all become extinct within the last 20 years. Many other animals stand on the brink, thanks to the human race’s destruction of the natural world.

“We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, and it’s due to overpopulation and environmental change brought about by human activity,” says Bexell.

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