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Study Says Global Warming May Trigger Wave of Extinctions
John Tidwell, Staff Writer

April 11, 2006: Ask any polar bear: climate change is real and coming faster than anyone anticipated. But how will that affect life globally? Now a new study says that a rise of just 2 degrees in Earth’s temperature over the next 50 years could wipe out tens of thousands of plant and animal species around the planet, even in remote places far away from human activity. So pervasive would this ‘wave’ of extinction be, that the study, co-authored by CI’s Lee Hannah - says that by the end of this century, climate change will represent a greater threat to biodiversity than deforestation, with important implication to the long-term endurance of our conservation gains.

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats to Earth’s biodiversity,” says Jay Malcolm, the study’s lead author and assistant forestry professor at the University of Toronto. “We now have strong scientific evidence that global warming will result in catastrophic species loss across the planet.”

Examining plants and animals in 25 of the 34 biodiversity hotspots, the report’s scientists also determined that some regions were more vulnerable than others, especially the Cape Floristic, Caribbean, Indo-Burma, Southwestern Australia, Mediterranean Basin and Tropical Andes hotspots, where extinctions of plant and animal species in each region could exceed 2,000. While the hotspots studied represent only 1 percent of Earth’s land surface, they are nonetheless home to some 44 percent of all terrestrial plant species and 35 percent of all land animals. CI, the World Wildlife Fund, the David Suzuki Foundation and others supported the report, published this year in the scientific journal Conservation Biology.

The new study also corroborates controversial findings published two years ago in the journal Nature by scientists from the University of Leeds and CI, that claimed global warming from increased atmospheric greenhouse gasses could drive species to seek cooler latitudes or higher altitudes. But for many specialized creatures already living on mountaintops or islands, there may be nowhere else to go, resulting – the Leeds study said – in the extinction of over a million animal species by 2050. This year’s study reported a more conservative drop in species, but supported the earlier claims that a rise in planetary temperatures of only a few degrees could destroy vast numbers of species in less than a century.

“Its not just polar bears and penguins that we must worry about anymore,” Explains Hannah, who is a senior fellow for climate change at CI. “The hotspots studied in this paper are essentially refugee camps for many of our planet’s most unique plant and animal species. If those areas are no longer habitable due to global warming, then we will quite literally be destroying the last sanctuaries many of these species have left.”


© Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures
This species of Amaryllis (Worsleya rayneri) has grown on a mountainside near Rio de Janeiro in the Atlantic Forest Biodiversity Hotspot for more than a million years.

© Gerry Ellis/Minden Pictures
A Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer) perched atop a protea (Mimetes protea). Many flowers in the Proteaceae family are at risk of extinction due to climate change.

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