Nature adapts to survive climate change

By Jonathan Silver
March 15, 2013

While the climate change discussion in Washington is moving at a glacial pace, nature is responding to climate change at record speed. The animal, plant and insect kingdoms aren’t interested in public policy. They don’t read political blogs. They adapt because they have to. They must change to survive.

We would be wise to heed the signs.

Animals, plants and even insects are now adapting quickly to shifts in temperatures, often by migrating to cooler climates, modifying their diets and altering breeding cycles.

This is happening at blinding speed in large, complex ecosystems. Throughout most of the 20th century, for example, tree range shift occurred at about 0.4 miles a year. Since 1990, however, climate changes have caused species range to move by an average of 12 miles a year. A 2009 U.S. Forest Service study, tracking 40 major tree species in 30 Eastern states, concluded that tree ranges had moved, on average, more than 60 miles north in less than a century.

More than 60 percent of the birds the National Wildlife Federation tracked in a recent study have expanded their range northward by an average of 35 miles in the last 40 years. Fourteen small mammal species in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were found to have extended the elevation at which they can survive by an average of 1,640 feet.

This rapid adaptation is occurring around the world. British researchers recently analyzed more than 2,000 animal and plant species in Britain and found that many had already made significant adaptations to a changing environment.

The Comma butterfly, for example, has migrated north from central England to Edinburgh, Scotland – a distance of more than 130 miles – over the past 40 years. They found that the Cetti warbler, a small bird, has moved more than 90 miles north.

Changes are also evident in breeding cycles. New storm patterns brought on by climate change have affected when tropical tree frogs lay their eggs, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found.

The climate may now be changing so quickly that some species do not have time to adapt. With the Antarctic warming, for example, penguins now need to lay their eggs far earlier, according to research at Stony Brook University in New York. Yet of the three species studied – the Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo – only the Gentoo has been able to adapt quickly. As a result, that population has exploded, while the other two are dwindling.

In another study, researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa a few years ago began exploring how small animals on a remote sub-Antarctic island adapted to climate change. Their original hypothesis: Classic evolution would ensure that the species survived. The biologists found, however, that several species did not evolve.

The rate of ecosystem change was so great, the scientists concluded, that some animals’ adaptive response mechanisms could not keep pace. They simply never kicked in.

When plants and animals move, adapt or die off, the planet’s biodiversity diminishes. This is a big deal. The loss of biodiversity affects the environment as much as climate change and pollution do, according to a recent National Science Foundation study conducted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Human health is directly linked to, and correlated with, a healthy, diverse ecosystem. For example, when coral reefs die, fish die. About 75 percent of the world’s fish catch is used for human consumption. No fish, no food.

We use the natural ecosystem for food, fresh water, medicines, clothing and much more. A report for the 2013 National Climate Assessment concluded that the extensive changes in these ecosystems will have important implications for future human activity, including what we eat and how we live.

Media coverage of climate change usually focuses on the dramatic effects of the natural disasters generated, or exacerbated, by these changing ecosystems. The droughts in the Midwest, hurricane Sandy and the relative absence of snow are all easy to understand, and their impact on human life is immediate and visible.

Our tendency to downplay the less visible, but more fundamental, clues – like the changes occurring in the animal kingdom – is understandable. But misguided. Think of these as early warning signs of the potentially profound changes to come if we do not act soon. If global temperatures increase more than two to three degrees Fahrenheit above current levels, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, up to one-third of the species on Earth could be at risk of extinction.

That could include us.

The natural world is acting on climate change, even if Washington isn’t. We need to start paying attention.


PHOTO (TOP): The population of Adelie penguins has been dwindling due to climate change. Here, Adelie penguins are making their way to the water in the Cape Evans region of
Antarctica, February 2002. REUTERS/Mark Baker

PHOTO (Insert A): The Eastern Comma butterfly in an undated image. A female is on the left, a male at right. REUTERS/Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility.

PHOTO (Insert B): A Chinstrap Pengiun on Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, off the Antarctic peninsula. This is one penguin species proving unable to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (Insert C): Unaffected corals in Dibba, October 18, 2004, before the 2008 Red Tide which badly affected life underwater and killed many fish. Coral reefs support a third of the Gulf’s fish populations. REUTERS/Climate change/Handout



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The following describes the irrefutable reasons why our elected representatives in Washington DC cannot, and therefore will not, act on climate change:

The following statement is an absolute truth:

“Capitalism is now an ideology pure and simple, with a propaganda boilerplate and patter all its own. It is used to camouflage the real truth, which is that Congress has sold out to corporate interests; that members of Congress are bought and sold in a behind-the-scenes market where votes and money are constantly traded; that America’s megabanks and corporations do not believe in competition but obsessively seek market-distorting tax favors, subsidies, federal rulings allowing “venture capitalists” to gobble up or destroy competitors and drive small businesses into extinction.” Our Supreme Court has exacerbated and encouraged this behavior that is contrary to public policy by declaring and mandating that “money is speech” and “corporations are people”. The first step that is urgently needed to correct this shameful situation is to initiate a massive grass roots movement by getting enough signatures on the petition by clicking on or copying and pasting into your browser – -politics

Let us all get our heads out of the sand and recognize finally that we no longer have a Democracy (government of the people by the people and for the people). What we do actually have is Plutocracy (government of the people by the lobbyists for the rich and powerful corporations, banks and individuals).

So, the remedy is obvious. Take the money out of politics so that members of Congress will be responsible only to the people that voted for them. To accomplish this it will require a massive grass roots movement by the majority of our citizens that can be started when they have all signed the petition at – -politics

Posted by Flounderbay | Report as abusive

While it is a true statement that “nature” provides all species with the ability to adapt to climate change in order for a species to survive — keeping in mind that “nature” really means the particular set of genetic heritage (i.e. built-in survival characteristics) of a species that allows it to meet environmental change, not some godlike entity that oversees “nature” — and that some specis cannot cope with the rate of change and do not survive, it is only man who is in denial of “natural” climate change.

This form of denial of what is natural and normal is the insane rhetoric of environmentalists who — with their own motivations that have little to do with saving mankind — want to assign 100% of the “blame” for what is a natural phenomenon to man.

Thus, they are deliberately condemning mankind to certain extinction with their quasi-religious dogma, backed by their pseudo-science which has little in common with real science or that of reality itself.

Environmentalists want to “deny” that what we are seeing is a totally natural process, or that what we need actually must do is to adjust our species to or we will not survive. This cannot be accomplished by superficial changes in our behavior, which is what they argue.

Instead, environmentalists, in unimaginable hubris, seek instead to force the earth to remain in an ice age!

This argument is made regardless of the fact that Ice ages are an extreme anomaly in earth’s history — it is highly unusual for there to be polar ice caps, and there are natural reasons why they exist today, such as continental drift — but the environmentalists attempt to deny what is self-evident to anyone who cares to look at the data that is freely available for them to form their own opinions.

Right now, the average earth temperature is far below its normal over the past 200 million years. It is the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea over the intervening millenia, and the subsequent pattern of continuously drifting continents to where they are today, that has driven the earth into an ice age by forcing substantial reductions in the earth’s ability to distribute heat evenly around the world. And it is the SOLE event that has caused the present day weather patterns, including the global ice caps.

In truth, environmentalists do not have some magic crystal ball to see into the future. Their “data” is highly suspect (i.e. cherry-picked), deliberately skewed to reach their preconceived notions of what they want to believe. Thus their climate “models” confirm their preconceived hypothesis — man is entirely to blame for climate change. Isn’t that amazing? This is not science, but pseudo-science with a doomsday message that is not genuine.

Once a discredited fringe group of tree huggers, they have morphed into a powerful group that is a clear and present danger to our survival — much more of an immediate threat than the supposed danger from global warming — mainly because they have manged to ally themselves with powerful market forces around the world who see a massive profit for themselves by generating unreasonable fear among the general population.

We will not survive their “prescription” to heal global warming, which is to artificially “drive down demand”, “live locally” and “conserve energy”. The result of their admonitions WILL force a collapse of the global economy, which can barely sustain its present population with its distribution systems intact. As a result, environmentalists WILL push mankind into the catastrophic extinction they warn about.

Their prescription deliberately ignores the fact that the human population is expanding at an unsustainable rate. Unless something is done to curb its growth and reduce it to more sustainable levels, no amount of conserving anything — be it energy, food, water, or any kind of natural resources — will matter.

THAT is the truth these environmentalists will never mention in any of their senseless screed. The real truth is totally backwards from their insanity.

It is MAN who must change his natural instincts, or we will not survive as a species.

The truth is the earth does not care what happens to any particular species, nor whether life exists on its surface at all. The earth is NOT some quasi-sentient being that cares what happens. It is simply another planet in a universe filled with uncountable planets, which may or may not hold life.

Adaptation to our environment is the key to survival.

The whole issue of global warming comes down to this one simple question that many other species have had to face in the past. Do we have the ability to change as our environment is changing? We need to understand that this is a NATURAL process, not a disaster due to man’s activites alone.

The only relevant question is do we as a species have what it takes to survive? I doubt it. And listening to the advice of quasi-religious fanatics reduces our chances to virtually nil.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

pseudo you bring up some good points, while at the same time argue against yourself. environmentalists represent the very idea that we need to “adapt to our environment” as the “key to survival”. conserving energy, either through reduced demand or the utilization of renewable energy sources, is the exact thing which will allow us to thrive as the world changes. While climate change may very well be a natural process, we must at least recognize and respond to the fact that earth’s resources are not unlimited, and we, as humans, are depleting these resources at an exponential rate, to a greater extent than any other species throughout earth’s history. We must learn to live within our means, which implicates a change in the status quo, or as you put it, man changing his natural instincts. We cannot expect a movement to decrease our population, so instead, we must “adapt” to minimize our impact on the earth and it’s resources, which is exactly what environmentalists advocate

Posted by adaptation | Report as abusive

“Classic evolution would ensure that the species survived”
-Would it? I thought Evolution naturally included extinction of specie and their replacement by others who are better adapted.

Excuse me for asking, but what’s wrong with cold regions becoming more temperate and consequently more hospitable for various specie, including our own?

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

As long as the field of economics maintains its self-imposed blindness to the effects of population growth and clings to its mantra that mankind is clever enough to overcome all obstacles to further growth, they will continue to lean on population growth as a crutch for “economic” growth. And our government leaders will continue to follow the advice of their economic advisors. It’s the very reason that the federal government continues to maintain high immigration quotas – to assure that U.S. population growth continues.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

It is rare indeed that 100% of the comments on an article genuinely reflect different perspectives, emphasis and wise introspection. I’m absolutely delighted! Well done, all!

There may be hope yet.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Althought I generally agree with you, you should realize we never had a democracy, but a republic. If you saw the last election for PotUS, then you’d know that the Electoral College obviates the one-person, one-vote ideology we espouse, but do not actually have. Yes, we live in a plutocracy now, ruled by the One Percenters.

Money – speech. Corporations are people. You don’t accept the Supreme Court’s decisions?

You’ve already lost.

Pseudo Turtle:
Your lack of knowledge about all things scientific – i.e. fact-based research – is astounding. Luckily, natural selection will weed you out. Then, the Idiocracy has been making headway in recent years.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Like it or not, the laws of nature will always win. Men cannot control it and in the end, we will all return to the animal kingdom and cease to consider ourselves its masters. Sooner or later we’ll run out of precious metals, fossil fuels and coal. All the mined materials that let our modern culture advance are limited. They will run out and mankind will return to a period even before the steam engine. Whenever I hear “save the planet and live sustainable” I laugh. Sustainable means no cars, no electricity, no telephones, or anything else that has to be created by using things in limited supply. Then, when everyone is burning open fires to stay warm, as has been done throughout human history, when forest fires burn across continents, will we still hear about our impact on the climate? Despite our intelligence, we’re all still just animals.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

If you saw the documentary on PBS regarding
Chernobyl you can see that nature has restored herself without “Man.” And if you read about the killer bees, they honey is edible.
It’s sad for our grandchildren that we can’t participate with the “creation” of our world, but seek only to take and destroy. I hope we wake up and use our “imaginations and hearts,” instead of science and political debates.

Posted by Annabellilly | Report as abusive

Although there are sound arguments that can be made as to the causes of climate change, no one can deny that without scientific investigation, experimentation and facts, there is no hope for humanity or all the other life that is threatened by climate change. We can no longer ignore what is so very obviously happening to our planet. I agree that increased population poses a significant threat, however, we already have the capabilities to deal with this problem but not the will to do it. Nature always plays a role, however, our own abuses over the last century and our continued insistence in using fossil fuels rather than energy saving alternatives, will not bode will for our species. We all live on this beautiful planet of ours, as such, we should love and take care of it as if it were our own child. But, human nature, sadly enough, has not evolved to prevent the destruction and depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Nothing on this planet has had such a detrimental effect on all other living species on this planet than the human race. As the bio-diversity of this planet disappears, so do our chances that humanity will also become extinct. It saddens me to see that so many still refuse to see that our actions have consequences. But this is just not America’s problem, this is a multi-nation problem. It is my hope that the younger generation will do a much better job than our current political leaders around the world are willing to do.

Posted by attyrose | Report as abusive