Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Higher Greenhouse Gases

A report by the World Meteorological Organization which was released Sept 9, 2014 found that greenhouse gases (gases in the atmosphere that absorb and emit infrared radiation such as carbon dioxide, warming the planet) are higher than ever previously recorded. The report reads, "Carbon dioxide or CO2 levels increased more from 2012 to 2013 than any year since 1984," showing that, despite increased attention to global warming, there doesn't appear to be any improvement.

How does global warming affect wildlife? What does any of this have to do with ecology?

Coral reef
Photo credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
According to the World Meteorological Organization, roughly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed by the oceans, a further 25% are absorbed by the biosphere (life on earth, or the global ecological system), and the rest is then absorbed by the atmosphere. The oceans don't absorb all of these emissions without consequence, however. The result is ocean acidification, a decrease in pH caused by the uptake of carbon. Ocean acidification is thought to cause coral bleaching, a depressed immune response for some organisms, and reproductive disorders in certain fish. Lower pH levels are bad news for marine life inhabiting the oceans' dead zones, where oxygen levels are low. Dead zones with low pH levels are linked to increased rates of death and decreased rates of growth for young bay scallops and hard clams.

 It's important to keep in mind that this change in pH is happening suddenly and quickly. Organisms can't adapt fast enough and, like in a row of dominos, everything is connected. Food webs are affected, and the consequences could reach all the way to commercial fishing and the food we like to see on the menu.

Sea levels are also rising, which will certainly effect coastal ecosystems. Remember, warmer temperatures mean more evaporation, which will lead to more precipitation and thus possibly increased flooding in some areas. Rainfall is tightly linked to the types of vegetation that can grow in an area, and thus the animals that eat that vegetation. Hibernating animals, such as marmots,  wake up earlier or don't hibernate at all. Food sources for these hibernating animals aren't available during times when animals previously hibernated but are now awake, thus increasing the risk of starvation. I could give more and more examples (monarch butterflies changing their migration patterns, higher extinction rates, habitat changes for turtles, and so forth ), but I hope they're not needed.

Snares crested penguins
The effects of global warming are complex and potentially underestimated. What may seem like a small rise in sea level can have drastic consequences for multiple ecosystems. A seemingly slight rise in air temperature can mean a species needs to change its behavior, mating patterns, or habitat use. Changes to our planet are happening rapidly, as the World Meteorological Organization shows us. The question remains, what are we going to do about these changes? Are we going to do anything?

What do you think we should be doing to slow rising greenhouse gas emissions? How are different people and organizations (scientists, policy-makers, teachers, politicians, every day people, etc) responsible? What are some realistic approaches we could make to combat rising greenhouse gases?

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