Nature's 'crown jewels' under threat from global warming

Posted: 12 February 2002

Two devastating studies from the US National Wildlife Federation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warn that even the most biologically-rich habitats on Earth face could devastation by the end of the century, unless urgent action is taken to combat global warming.

Scientists from the WWF conservation group predict that 80 per cent of the 113 most scientifically important land-based habitats - the 'crown jewels of nature' - are at risk from rising temperatures. They warn that many species may be unable to move to new areas fast enough to survive the changes that global warming will bring to their historic habitat, raising the possibility of a "catastrophic" loss of species in one-fifth of the world's most vulnerable nature areas.

Moreover, habitats at extreme altitudes and close to the north and south poles, have nowhere to move to, and could be destroyed.

Environmental changes

Echoing the WWF's findings, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) suggests that global warming will pose threats to US wildlife, more trouble with invasive species, and significant environmental changes that will jeopardize human quality of life in the near future.

Among the US ecosystems at risk, areas in California, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Prairie may be hardest hit. Dramatic changes may devastate the shrub and woodland areas that stretch from Southern California to San Francisco, prairies in the northern heart of the United States, Sierra Nevada mountains, Klamath-Siskiyou forest near the California-Oregon border, and the Sonoran-Baja deserts across the southern western United States.

"Global warming has come down to Earth for the wildlife right in our backyards," said Mark Van Putten, president of NWF. "The effects are already happening and will likely worsen unless we get serious about reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases to help slow global warming."

Hotspots at risk Worldwide, the areas most at risk from climate change are the Canadian Low Arctic Tundra; the wooded Ural Mountain taiga in Russia; the central Andean dry puna in Chile, Argentinian and Bolivia; the Daurian steppe of Mongolia; the Terau-Duar savannah of north-east India and Nepal; south-western Australia and the fynbos of southern Africa.

The Canadian arctic tundra is one of the world's largest wildernesses but according to the WWF report, more than three-quarters of its area may disappear, with a loss of one in five of the species living there.

The East Himalayan alpine meadows have more varieties of plant than anywhere in Asia, except Borneo. They are home to the critically endangered snow leopard. Only 5,000 remain but the leopard is still hunted for its highly-prized pelt. By the end of the century, two-thirds of its habitat may have disappeared.

The fynbos of Southern Africa contains seven out of 10 plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth. In summer, it is so parched it is often ravaged by fire, with many plants dependent on regular blazes to stimulate seeds. But for a brief period in the spring, the whole landscape explodes into a multicoloured bloom. Yet almost half of it could vanish, according to the WWF report. "It is shocking to see that many of our most biologically valuable ecosystems are at special risk from global warming. If we don't do something to reverse this frightening trend, it would mean extinction for thousands of species," warns Dr Jay Malcolm, author of the WWF report and a professor at the University of Toronto.

Animal losses

Other animals and habitats under threat include the greater Asian one-horned rhino, of which only 2,400 survive in the grasslands of northern India, Nepal and Bhutan, also home to the Asian tiger. The numbat, a marsupial, is also likely to loses its habitat in the forests of south-western Australia.

To address this global threat, the conservation groups are calling on all nations to meet or beat the emission targets detailed by the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol will not take effect until it is ratified by 55 per cent of the nations responsible for at least 55 per cent of the total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990.

The organisations are particularly insistent that the United States which comprises 5 per cent of the world's population but emits 25 per cent of its CO2, ratify the agreement and do its part to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The US could pave the way by introducing legislation to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, increase the percentage of its energy from clean, renewable resources and place higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, the conservation groups say.

Sources: Environment News Service, February 7, 2002 and The Sunday Observer (UK), 10 February 2002.

Related links:

The WWF report, Habitats at Risk: Global Warming and Species Loss in Globally Significant Terrestrial Ecosystems

The NWF report can be ordered online from Island Press