A new global temperature analysis says climate change could drive as many as one in six plant and animal species to extinction.
In a study published last week in the journal Science, the amount of species threatened with extinction will accelerate with the rising temperature.
Led by Dr. Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, the study may prove to be a low estimate, according to other experts. John J. Wiens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, told The New York Times the number of extinctions “may well be two to three times higher.”
Richard Pearson, a biogeographer at University College London, told The New York Times the new study drew “an important line in the sand that tells us we know enough to see climate change as a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.”
Urban said his meta-analysis is not the final word, but “this is a summary of the best information we have right now.”
The Earth’s temperature has risen approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, and climate researchers project the planet could warm by as much as 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The issue, scientists warn, is climate change forces species to search for new, more suitable habitats, and not all species will be able to find a new home.
Dr. Kevin Strychar, an associate professor and climate change expert at Grand Valley State University, agrees with Urban’s analysis. Strychar believes climate change will effect certain types of animals differently.
“Endemic species with small ecological ranges and certain taxonomic groups like reptiles and amphibians (are most at danger due to climate change),” Strychar said. “I would also expect to see increases in bird extinctions, large animals like rhinos, orangutans and butterflies. In the oceans, I expect many of the coral reefs to be in severe chaos with the Great Barrier Reef extinct by 2050.”
Strychar noted animals like the rhino and orangutan are further put into danger by other human practices, such as hunting and deforestation.
In his study, Urban found the number of species at risk of extinction rises sharply with a rise in temperature. Urban predicts 7.9 percent of species will go extinct due to climate change. If the Earth were to warm only 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, Urban expects approximately 5.2 percent of species would die off. If the Earth were to warm 7.7 degrees Fahrenheit, 16 percent of species likely would go extinct.
Strychar says the high end of Urban’s prediction is “more than possible.”
“We are talking about a change in temperature by approximately 4.2 degrees Celsius. Yes, I think that is more than possible,” Strychar said. “The problem with that temperature, though, is not only the impact on the terrestrial systems but imagining what that will do if the waters of the world warm up.”
Urban also notes both humans and other ecosystems will be effected by higher extinction rates.
“Even species not threatened directly by extinction could experience substantial changes in abundances, distributions and species interactions, which in turn could affect ecosystems and their services to humans,” Urban said in his report. “Already, changes … are evident.”