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Is the Emperor Penguin the New Polar Bear? Shifts in Ecosystems and Species Ranges Highlight Climate Changes

On July 16 the CBC posted an article about entomology expert Dr. Maxim Larrivée finding giant swallowtail caterpillars at the Montreal Botanical Gardens awaiting metamorphosis.

With a wingspan of 10-16 cm, the swallowtail is the largest butterfly in Canada and an exciting find. What is truly astonishing is its location. As a result of changing climate conditions over the last 10 years, the swallowtail butterfly has migrated 400 km north.

According to Larrivée, this type of finding is becoming more and more common; at least 10 other species have migrated or expanded their range in a similar way, though none quite so much as the swallowtail.

“From a standpoint of range expansion and adaptation to climate change, this guy is the champion,” says Larrivée.

Unfortunately, other species may not adapt to new conditions quite so easily. A 2009 study led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Minnesota suggests that the number of breeding pairs of the Emperor Penguin could shrink from approximately 3,000 to just 400 by the end of the century, pushing the species towards extinction. The species depends on sea ice for survival, and even normal fluctuations in sea ice cover have impacted populations in the past. As the climate changes, the increasingly significant lessening of sea ice cover may go beyond the penguin’s ability to cope: another example of what scientists are calling the “loss of stationarity” – the expansion of the severity of weather events to a level we have never seen before in human history.

Indeed, the rate at which ecosystems are changing is faster than scientists had previously anticipated. On July 20, the Vancouver Sun reported that researchers are recording drastic shifts in all 16 of British Columbia’s distinct ecosystems, from the coastal rainforest to the alpine peaks. Research conducted collaboratively by The Faculty of Forestry at UBC and the Canadian Forest Service shows that the range of climatic conditions within which a species can survive, known as ‘climate envelopes,’ has already moved nearly 23% in BC, a magnitude of change not expected to occur until the 2020s.

The implications reach beyond the scope of primary ecosystem services to public health. An article in the July 23rd edition of the Vancouver Sun discusses the links between warmer temperatures and the proliferation of gastroenteritis-causing bacteria in northern Europe. Researchers from Britain, Finland, Spain and the US found that instances of Vibrios, which passes to humans through seawater or through consumption of raw or undercooked fish, were greater and more concentrated during times of peak sea surface temperatures in the Baltic Sea due to a combination of warmer water and reduced salt concentrations due to increased rainfall.

It’s clear that current and predicted climate changes are driving shifts in the ecosystems we depend on, and that as a result the biodiversity that underpins these ecosystems, and even public health, is at risk. We must take thoughtful steps to address these issues, as emphasized in ACT’s 2009 Climate Change Adaptation and Biodiversity BC report, whose recommendations were built on four broad adaptation strategies for land and water management:

  • Strategic management of the working land base outside protected areas;
  • Pro-active adaptation measures for ecosystems in legally protected areas;
  • Re-connecting the landscape between protected areas to support wildlife corridors;
  • Restoration of degraded ecosystems to bolster resilience.

Lauren Klose
ACT Water Governance Intern
Masters Candidate, SCARP UBC

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