Plants, animals and entire ecosystems are on the move as rising temperatures force species to seek cooler climes

One focus of the latest report from the UN panel on climate change is the impact on Earth’s ecosystems. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that in recent decades, many plant and animal species have moved their range, changed numbers or shifted their seasonal activities as a result of warmer temperatures.

Moving on up

Species are matching temperature rises by increasingly shifting their range towards the cooler poles or higher altitudes — sometimes three times faster than previously thought. Species that already inhabit the upper limit of their habitat — such as the polar bear, snow leopard or dotterel — literally have nowhere left to go.

The British comma butterfly has moved 137 miles northward in the past two decades, while geometrid moths on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo have shifted uphill by 59 metres in 42 years. The quiver tree of southern Africa is increasing as it moves towards the south pole, but dying of heat and water stress in its shrinking northern range.

In the seas, rising numbers of warm-water crustaceans have been found around Norway’s polar islands, while the snow crab has extended its range northwards by up to 311 miles. The IPCC report warns that many species will be unable to move fast enough to track suitable climates, with plants, amphibians and small mammals in flat landscapes or that remain close to their breeding site particularly vulnerable.

Seasonal shift

For many species, climate influences important stages in their annual life cycle, like migration or mating. The report shows major shifts in this “phenology” in recent decades, mainly in the northern hemisphere. “Spring advancement” — the earlier occurrence of breeding, bud burst, breaking hibernation, flowering and migration — has been found in hundreds of plant and animal species in many regions. Migratory birds including the whitethroat, reed warbler and song thrush are arriving earlier, three species of Japanese amphibians have been found to be breeding earlier, while the edible dormouse has been emerging earlier from hibernation by an average of eight days per decade.

Squeezed-out species

Climate change will reduce the “populations, vigour and viability” of species confined to small, isolated habitats, the report warns. The mountain pygmy possum of Australia is being affected by warmer winters, emerging from hibernation before its prey, the bogong moth, and often dying of starvation. The spectacular Haleakala silversword lives only on a single volcano summit in Hawaii, but shifting weather patterns have made the plant’s environment too dry and warm for new seedlings to survive, and older plants are dying off.

Tree deaths

Higher rates of tree death and forest dieback have been increasingly attributed to climate change. While warmer temperatures are making North America’s forests more vulnerable to infestations from insects like the ips, spruce, fir and mountain pine beetles, sizeable areas of forest in Australia, Russia, France and other countries have experienced die-offs, mostly caused by drought, high temperatures, or both.

Invasive species

Since the 2007 IPCC report, the spread and establishment of alien species attributed to climate change has increased, helped by longer seasons and warmer weather. The Asian tiger mosquito is now prevalent in several southern European countries but projections show it is likely to extend its range further north. In Svalbard, the present risk posed by invasive species is relatively low due to the cold polar seas. But under scenarios where oceans continue to warm, the number of invasive species such as the European green crab, Japanese ghost shrimp and club sea-squirt are predicted to increase six-fold.

Extinction

Changes in climate have been identified as one of the key drivers of extinctions of amphibians, with more than 160 probable extinctions in the last two decades, many in Central America. The most notable cases have been the golden toad and the Monteverde harlequin frog. The report warns that many species face increased extinction risk as climate change adds to existing pressures such as habitat loss, exploitation, pollution and invasive species.

Both warm water coral reefs and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts, the report warns. Sea temperatures of 29.2C determine a 50:50 sex ratio in green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley turtles. Scientists say higher temperatures will lead to the feminisation of populations and affect breeding rates.Whales, fish and birds will all suffer from declines in the zooplankton (krill, fish and cephalopods) on which they feed.

Ecosystems

The high northern latitudes are warming more rapidly than other parts of the Earth, with climate models predicting a northward shift of Arctic vegetation that will see the boreal biome (coniferous forest across North America and Eurasia) migrate into what is currently tundra (treeless plains of the Arctic).