Climate change: An extreme threat to the future of wildlife


Moose populations Vermont National Wildlife Federation

Moose populations are declining in many states due to factors associated with climate change. Photo: Philippe Henry

Climate change: An extreme threat to the future of wildlife

By Jim Murphy from National Wildlife Federation

As a Vermonter, I love to venture into the woods, where the white noise of everyday busyness fades away to a chorus of singing birds, babbling brooks, and wind rustling through leaves. One of my more memorable experiences in the woods was preceded by a more alarming sound. I was hiking on a trail beneath Vermont’s tallest mountain, Mount Mansfield, when the wood’s chatter was interrupted by the angry shaking of branches close by — very close by. I stopped in my tracks just in time to avoid being plowed over by an enormous moose bursting through the trees. Without taking note of me, it turned and trotted down the trail. I stood in awe. First, at the fact I didn’t get trampled, but then at a creature whose size and majesty were nothing short of magnificent.

Sadly, moose encounters such as these in woods of northern New England may be coming to an end. Moose rely on cold climates and long winters. As temperatures rise due to climate change, moose in northern states are finding it harder to endure the increased tick populations and other stressors that come with this warmth. While Vermont’s moose population has held out better than other states, moose in neighboring New Hampshire and Maine have seen steep declines. Minnesota’s moose population has also seen severe drops, though populations have seemed to partially stabilize. Other iconic species, like Canada lynx and wolverine, also depend on long and cold winters and are at risk in northern states too.

The threat of climate change is not just confined to wildlife in northern states or to species that rely on long, cold winters. It is posing an unprecedented threat to the wildlife we cherish everywhere. From trout whose cool, flowing streams are warming and drying up, to sea turtles in the Southeast that are losing their coastal breeding grounds due to sea level rise, to the countless colorful species that rely on intricate ecosystems of coral reefs that are bleaching and dying out as oceans warm and acidify, wildlife are under siege from climate change.

Trout National Wildlife Federation

Streams in many areas, like parts of Appalachia and the Southeast, may get too warm for brook trout. Photo: USFWS

Warming temperatures, extreme weather events, increased wildfires, pests and invasive species, droughts, and sea level rise all lead to habitat loss and species decline. If we don’t take decisive action now to reduce carbon pollution, one-third of all wildlife species will face increased risk of extinction in the lifetime of a child born today.

Sadly, this means that the world we leave to our children will lose much of its richness and wonder.

Here are some of the specific ways in which climate change poses threats to wildlife and their habitat:

More extreme weather events: As we have sadly seen recently, more powerful weather related events will cause destruction and disruption of habitats. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are a glimpse of the type of more intense storms that will batter coasts and inland communities and habitat areas with relentless wind and rains. This can harm coastal and island species like the endangered Florida Key deer, which saw much of its fresh water supply tarnished, or sea turtles and nesting shorebirds that have seen beach habitat heavily damaged or polluted.

Florida key deer National Wildlife Federation

The tiny, endangered Key deer, which live in just the Florida Keys, are at risk from extreme hurricane events. Photo: USFWS

Widespread forest loss and wildfires: In the western U.S., warming temperatures and stress from droughts are killing trees outright and making them more vulnerable to insect infestations like the pine beetle. Higher temperatures and increased fuel from dead trees have led to more wildfires that are wiping out habitat areas with an unprecedented heat intensity. Species like trout are harmed when streams in harshly burnt forest areas become clogged with sediment or become too warm when canopy shade is lost and does not quickly recover. 

Sea-level rise: Sea level rise is already inundating beaches and marshes and causing erosion on our coasts, diminishing habitat for birds, invertebrates, fish, and other coastal wildlife. It is also resulting in saltwater inundation of brackish or freshwater systems near coasts. Threatened and endangered species such as sea turtles and piping plover may lose important breeding habitat. Additionally, with human development oftentimes very close to the shore in many places, there may be little room for beach and coastal habitat to migrate inland, resulting in potentially substantial long-term habitat loss.

Pika National Wildlife Federation

American pika could run out of habitat if climate change goes unchecked. Photo: Stephen Torbit

Changes in range: Wildlife and plants that are able to adjust are shifting their ranges northward or to higher altitudes to adjust to warming temperatures, but some are not migrating fast enough, will come into conflict with other wildlife or people, or will run out of room. Wildlife that already live at high altitudes or latitudes, such as the American pika which live in cold, high altitude mountainous areas, may find themselves with nowhere to go.

Changes in timing of natural events: Many species take their cues about when to migrate, flower, nest or mate from seasonal changes in temperature, precipitation and daylight. Climate change is confusing those signals. Rapid changes will cause some species to get out of sync with other species in their ecosystem or with other natural events that they depend on. For example, some pollinators may arrive at the wrong time for flowering season — meaning that they don’t get the food they were counting on and plants don’t get pollinated.

Collapse of coral reefs: Coral reefs are some of the richest ecosystems in the world, but they are under severe stress with climate change. A phenomenon called coral bleaching occurs when colorful algae that live in corals die or are expelled from corals under stress. The algae live symbiotically with coral polyps that provide them with nutrients and oxygen. If the algae die and are not replaced, the coral will also die. Scientists believe that the biggest cause of coral bleaching is warm sea surface temperatures caused by global warming. Coral is also under stress due to ocean acidification, which is occurring when the ocean’s chemistry changes due to increased adsorption of atmospheric carbon. Ocean acidification makes it hard for calcium carbonate — a building block of coral — to form. If coral reefs continue to collapse, many other marine organisms that depend on coral reefs will also be in jeopardy.

Walrus National Wildlife Federation

Walrus depend on Artic sea ice, which is disappearing with climate change. Photo: USGS

Melting of Arctic sea ice: Arctic ice is melting at a faster and faster pace as temperatures rise. Many Arctic mammals, such as polar bears, walrus, and seals depend on sea ice for their survival. These species are particularly vulnerable, as they have no way to meaningfully adapt to an ice free world.

Loss of wetlands: Higher temperatures will lead to drier conditions in the Midwest’s Prairie Pothole region, one of the most important breeding areas for North American waterfowl. 

Invasive species and disease: Higher average temperatures and changes in rain and snow patterns will enable some invasive plant species to move into new areas. Insect pest infestations will be more severe as pests such as mountain pine beetle take advantage of drought-weakened plants. Pathogens and their hosts that thrive in higher temperatures will spread to new areas. Dangerous pests, like the mosquitos that carry the Zika virus, not only threaten human health but can also cause collateral damage for wildlife, as was seen last year when millions of bees died from spraying pesticides.

Wind turbines clean energy National Wildlife Federation

Clean, responsible energy provides a solution to protect wildlife from catastrophic climate change. Photo: Sara Trifiro

We can change the forecast for wildlife. By taking action now to reduce harmful carbon pollution, such as putting a price on carbon pollution that will incentivize clean, responsible energy, we can act to keep warming from hitting levels that would be catastrophic for wildlife. Also, by making natural resource and land use management decisions guided by science that accounts for the changes that are not avoidable, we can significantly limit the impacts to species.

Whether or not our special outdoor places will continue to be places of surprise, richness and wonder is up to us.

Jim Murphy is senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a voice for wildlife, dedicated to protecting wildlife and habitat and inspiring the future generation of conservationists. NWF partners with CCL and other organizations across the country to build support for carbon pricing and other policies to cut climate-altering pollution.