A new study finds that the potential effects of climate change may be underestimated, leading to massive extinctions across the world.
Scientist running a new set of climate models find that the world could face massive extinctions if carbon dioxide levels are not greatly reduced in the coming years. The team said recent climate models were flawed in the sense that they do not take into account aspects of animal behavior, which could ultimately lead to increased extinctions.
“We have really sophisticated meteorological models for predicting climate change,” said University of Connecticut ecologist Mark Urban, who led the study. “But in real life, animals move around, they compete, they parasitize each other and they eat each other. The majority of our predictions don’t include these important interactions.”
The study finds that animals unable to regulate their own temperature are likely move to different climates, possibly increasing the number invasive species. The team discovered that animals are traveling an average of eleven miles per decade towards our planets poles, likely in an effort to escape increasingly warm temperatures. Among the more extreme examples included one butterfly species that has already moved over 130 miles north in just two decades.
Not all species can disperse fast enough to get to these more suitable places before they die off, Mr. Urban said. And if they do make it to these better habitats, they may be outcompeted by the species that are already there – or the ones that got there first, said the study’s authors.
“When a species has a small range, it’s more likely to be outcompeted by others,” Mr. Urban says. “It’s not about how fast you can move, but how fast you move relative to your competitors.”
The study also found that massive extinctions could occur from an increased rate of habitat destruction. The team noted that the rate of habitat destruction could ultimately force species with limited environments to go extinct at higher rates than previously thought. The team says that animals living in tropical environments were particularly at risk.
The study’s authors faulted the simplicity of current models, which have said that extinctions are linked with climate change, however, it remains unclear exactly what impact such changes will have on various species.
“Those models are really simplistic, and they’re not including certain things that are really important,” said Mr. Urban. “If we start looking at these complexities in predictive models, we will see striking differences in predictions.”
The team noted that the addition of factors, such as migration rates and the intensity of competition from other species during migration, were key to understanding the effects of climate change on various creatures. Not surprisingly, the results favored organisms that could tolerate a wider range of habitats and were well equipped to move when necessary. Meanwhile, species with small ranges, specific needs and difficulty dispersing lost out.
The report comes just months after a series of global climate change meetings in Durban, South Africa. The meetings have pitted the U.S. against emerging powers China and India over whether to hold each other accountable for greenhouse-gas emissions. The European Union has indicated that the world’s three biggest polluters, China, India and the United States, have been slowing down the pace of negotiations on a roadmap to a future agreement.
The University of Connecticut study will be published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.