HomeScience & TechClimate change is likely to quickly push species past tipping points

Climate change is likely to quickly push species past tipping points

According to a new study led by a UCL researcher, climate change is likely to quickly push species past tipping points when their geographical areas experience unforeseen temperatures. A study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution predicts when and where climate change will expose species around the world to potentially deadly temperatures.

Scientists from UCL, the University of Cape Town, the University of Connecticut and the University of Buffalo examined data from more than 35,000 animal and seagrass species (including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, corals, fish, cephalopods and plankton) from every continent and ocean basins, as well as climate projections up to 2100.

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The researchers examined when areas within each species’ geographic range exceed a thermal exposure threshold, defined as the first five consecutive years in which temperatures consistently exceed the most extreme monthly temperature experienced by the species within its geographic range in recent history (1850–2014).

Once a thermal exposure threshold is crossed, an animal does not necessarily become extinct, but there is no evidence that it is able to survive higher temperatures – meaning that research projects that many species could experience a sudden loss of habitat due to future climate change.

The researchers found a consistent trend for many animals to exceed their thermal exposure threshold across much of their geographic range in the same decade.

Lead author Dr Alex Pigot (UCL Center for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UCL Biosciences) said: “Climate change is unlikely to make it progressively harder for animals to survive in the environment. they are likely to become unusually warm in a short period of time.

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“While some animals may be able to survive these warmer temperatures, many other animals will have to move to colder regions or evolve to adapt, which they likely cannot do in such short time frames.”

“Our findings suggest that once we start to notice that a species is suffering in unfamiliar conditions, it can take very little time for most of its range to become inhospitable, so it is important that we identify in advance which species may be at risk in the coming decades.”

The researchers found that the extent of global warming makes a big difference: if the planet warms by 1.5°C, 15% of the species they studied will be at risk of experiencing unusually high temperatures in at least 30% of their current geographic range within a decade, but this doubles to 30% of species at 2.5°C warming.

Dr Pigot added: “Our study is yet another example of why we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the damaging effects climate change is having on animals and plants and to avoid a massive extinction crisis.”

The researchers hope their study could help target conservation efforts, as their data provides an early warning system that shows when and where specific animals are likely to be at risk.

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