Global warming is likely to be the greatest cause of species extinctions this century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. If the planet warms by more than 3°C, most ecosystems will struggle.
Many of the world’s threatened species live in areas that will be severely affected by climate change. And climate change is happening too quickly for many species to adapt.
Here are just a few examples of how climate change may increase the challenges we’re already facing in our conservation work.
Tiger numbers in the wild have declined to as few as 3,200, largely due to poaching and habitat loss. Climate change is likely to result in increasing sea levels and further risk of fire in the already fragmented habitats where tigers live.
Warming in the Himalayas has already occurred at three times the global average. This is prime snow leopard habitat and continued warming will cause their range to shrink as the treeline moves higher up the mountains. This will not only fragment and isolate snow leopard populations, but it will severely affect their prey too.
Greater one-horned rhinos live on floodplain grasslands in northern India and Nepal. They rely on the annual monsoon to bring sufficient and timely rain, to replenish the vegetation they feed on. But a changing climate could disrupt this seasonal pattern and bring regular droughts or floods.
For orang-utans in Borneo – which are already at risk because of deforestation, forest conversion and illegal hunting – one of the first effects of climate change is likely to be food shortages caused by unusual rainfall patterns. They’re just one of the many species that will be affected.
In Africa, changes in rainfall will either bring too much rain – causing floods – or too little rain – bringing more drought and wildfires. These changes may cause some areas to simply become unsuitable for certain species to live in. African elephants can drink up to 225 litres of water each day, so changing weather patterns may mean they have to travel further in search of water – moving outside protected areas and coming into more contact with people.
The Arctic is warming roughly twice as fast as the global average, causing the ice that polar bears depend on to melt away. The sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year. This makes it more difficult for females to get onto land in late autumn to den, and onto the sea ice in spring to feed. It means bears are fasting for longer – dramatically reducing their body weight and physical condition and making it harder for them to survive the summer season.
Adélie penguins are ‘true’ Antarctic penguins, meaning they spend most of their time in Antarctica. But climate change is reducing the amount of sea ice in parts of the continent. One of the Adélies’ main food sources, krill, breeds and feeds under the sea ice. Reduced sea ice means reduced food for the Adélie penguins.