Climate Expected to Change 100x Faster than Species Can Adapt

Published on February 1st, 2012

Due to alterations in climate anticipated to occur from now through 2100, the ranges of species will need to change dramatically, according to a recent study from Indiana University in Bloomington. The researchers concluded that climate will change more than 100 times faster than the rate at which species can adapt.

This rate of change, according to the authors of the study, “is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Put yet another way by the lead author, Michelle Lawing, from Bloomington’s geological sciences and biology department, “Over the next 90 years, at best these species’ ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years.”

Species have responded to climate change throughout time, and by looking at climate indicators through the geological record, the researchers scrutinized 4,000-year intervals of the ranges of 11 rattlesnake species. They then could project models into the future by factoring in anticipated range changes at both ends of the warming predictions (from 1.1 degree to 6.4 degrees Celsius) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The study focused on rattlesnakes, good indicators of the impact of climate change, because they depend on their natural environment to regulate body temperature. Depending on the extent of temperature change, the report concluded that for the timber rattlesnake, for example, its range could expand slightly or shrink to a small area on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, while for the diamondback rattlesnake, with a temperature increase to the high end of 6.4 degrees, it would be displaced completely from its Southeastern U.S. grounds. Worst case scenario is extinction.

Generally, the study found that snakes just wouldn’t be able to keep up with the change. Author suggestions? Create “habitat corridors” and manage a process of relocating species to save them.

Maybe I’ve watched too many post-apocalyptic films, but as we careen towards a planet populated with 10 billion Homo sapiens fighting for ever-increasing scarce resources, I wonder if there will be anyone in 25 years (50 or 75 years) to advocate for and to secure the future of rattlesnakes, let alone the thousands of other threatened and endangered species on the planet.

The Bloomington study is just one of many that have been stacking up using science to show us where we’re headed. But are enough people listening? Are we making the policy decisions – including a policy to achieve a sustainable human population – which we need for a sustainable future? It doesn’t seem so.

Of course there can be argument about how much of the anticipated climate change is the result of a natural progression of Earth’s cycles, anthropogenic activities or a combination. But how can there be any real argument – when looking at the science, when looking at facts – that the Earth’s natural environment is undergoing significant change with dramatic and negative impacts on biodiversity?

One need only look at the loss of biodiversity we’ve experienced in recent times and the large number of threatened or endangered species due to man overwhelming the planet through relentless growth in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, rather than dealing with what science is showing us, we have to battle the distractions of the loud and uninformed voices of those such as Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum who has a national platform to appeal to more uneducated people who will listen to him when he claims that global warming is a hoax.

We can only hope that our scientists will start talking louder! A lot louder.

The easy-to-follow summary of the Bloomington report is here. The detailed report is here.

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