Climate Change’s Effects on Ecology

Will Schaller, Contributing Writer

It has become widely accepted that climate change is real and is affecting the earth. Human activity and the release of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, have played a significant role in the development of global warming, exacerbated by the large levels of urbanization in most countries. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reviewed over 30,000 documents and concluded that the majority of global warming since the 1950s has been caused by mankind. Adverse effects of climate change include melting ice and rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and an increased frequency in intense weather. All of these factors alter the earth’s climate at a pace that is on track to cause irreparable damage to the planet and all of its inhabitants.

While this is clearly a problem that affects people worldwide, executive action must be taken locally to avoid inevitable catastrophe. The clear pathway toward avoiding this lies in renewable energy sources and a gradual shift towards smarter lifestyles. The main argument against this revolves around the fact that renewable energy is much more expensive than fossil fuels. According to the IPCC, this would not even be a factor, as they estimated that moving towards renewable energy to avoid raising total global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius would only reduce global economic activity by 0.06 percent.

Another central issue is the private ownership of vehicles and their contribution to fossil fuel burning. The American government estimates that highway vehicles emit approximately 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year, accounting for more than 50 percent of the average household carbon dioxide emissions.

A recent case study revealed the effects that climate change has on ecology. This study specifically examined multiple colonies of butterflies throughout Ohio by observing their gradual response to climate change within 83 different sites statewide. The researchers factored in temperature and the level of urbanization within the area to compare factors such as first appearance, peak emergence, and last appearance within 20 different species over 13 years. They discovered conclusive evidence that changing temperatures, due to both climate change and increased urbanization, affect life cycle events within different butterflies and could significantly alter ecological balance and speciation. More opportunistic species are then able to capitalize on the affected species and increase their prevalence, lessening genetic diversity and allowing invasive species to enter and alter the environment.

Ohio is considered a temperate state and is reasonably distant from the equator, making it a good model for predicting climate change within organisms as it sees such a wide range of temperatures. Its climate also gives organisms plenty of room to alter their thermal optimal level and adapt to changing temperatures. Unfortunately for biodiversity within the lower latitudes, ability to adapt may not be so favorable as there is a much lower thermal ceiling for their ability to acclimate within equatorial regions. This poses more serious issues because the majority of earth’s biodiversity inhabits these regions. While it is unknown what effects a decrease in equatorial biodiversity could cause, a loss of speciation through increased risk of extinction is never beneficial and could create serious issues for the earth and its ecological stability.

Almost every aspect of the earth’s environment is affected by climate change, but significant alterations to ecology could be one of the most drastic. Ecological stability and diversity are the foundation for human life and disrupting them through a fifth mass extinction could be the downfall for mankind and the earth.

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