Climate Change’s Effect on Animal Habitats: A Brief Overview

By: Cara Vasso

Climate change is an alteration in normal weather patterns that affects global, regional, and local weather patterns. Perhaps the most significant aspect of climate change that Earth is currently experiencing a rise in temperatures, commonly known as global warming. Scientific studies note that since the 19th century the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen around 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, the majority of this warming has occurred within the past 35 years. This sudden increase is due to the amplified emissions of greenhouse gases, brought on by human activity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (October 2014), there is greater than a 95% probability that the planet has warmed due to human activities. For example, the practice of burning fossil fuels for energy has resulted in a massive influx of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning it contributes to the “greenhouse effect” which is when the Earth’s atmosphere traps heat within itself, because gases don’t allow the heat to escape toward space. Other examples of greenhouse gases include chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide. 

Climate change does and, if not addressed, will increasingly affect all life on Earth, including humans. It threatens freshwater supplies, causes droughts that will jeopardize crops and food security, and increases natural disasters. Although there are several other ways climate change will impact human beings, it is important to note how intensely it will impact the other species on Earth as well. Habitat disturbance is a leading climate change impact on animals. Below is an overview of some of the major habitats on Earth that animals rely on, and how climate change is causing disturbances to each.

Marine Habitats

Rising atmospheric temperatures result in rising ocean temperatures. Because the ocean is extremely susceptible to heat absorption from the atmosphere, its temperature can get to a level that is unfavorable to the life within it. The animals living in the ocean are interconnected to each other in a magnificent way. The life at the “bottom” of the food chain – including algae and plankton – are the foundation for all other marine life. For example, a small animal called krill eats plankton, fish eat the krill, and larger marine mammals such as whales eat the fish. Therefore, if something happens to the animals at the bottom of the food chain, all marine life is disrupted. One way that increased ocean temperatures affect this food chain is by disturbing algae’s ability to undergo photosynthesis. Algae shares the food it makes during photosynthesis with coral, which provides the algae with shelter. When warmer waters prevent algae from performing photosynthesis, coral in those environments die too. The fish that use coral as part of their habitat will have to adapt to new living conditions, or else they will perish as well. This is just one aspect of how the food chain within Earth’s oceans can crumble under the effects of climate change. 

Forest Habitats

The disturbances of climate change will inevitably extend to one of the richest ecosystems on Earth: forests.  Forests provide habitat for about 80% of the entire Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. Abundant plant life, insects, and animals call the forest their home. The unique niches of different forests are what allow animals to thrive and it is nearly impossible to imitate similar conditions in a non-forest setting. Examples of disturbances within forests caused by climate change will include unusual storm patterns, increased wildfires, and invasive species. These changes will intrude on the growth and efficiency of forests, resulting in a depleted ecosystem. Climate change will also cause some areas within a forest to experience drought, while causing other areas to experience flooding. Changes in the ecosystem will give the animals who live there no choice but to adapt, or else they face endangerment or extinction.  

Desert Habitats

It may seem bizarre that rising temperatures will cause a disturbance to the world’s hottest ecosystems. Nonetheless, deserts are not exempt from the dangers of climate change. When people think of deserts, they probably picture an empty and vast landscape, with conditions only cacti can tolerate. However, deserts provide the perfect environment for several plants, animals, and insects who thrive in those spaces. Just a few of these animals include camels, lizards, foxes, snakes, and coyotes. Many of these animals rely on water holes within the desert for sustenance, but climate change driven droughts are drying up these holes. Because of the limited water sources in deserts, adapting to this change will prove extremely difficult for animals. Increased wildfires are another disturbance to the desert ecosystem. Even though it is normal for deserts to experience wildfires, an increase to the normal frequency will inevitably shift the landscape. For example, many of the shrubs and trees in deserts have a long, slow growing process. If wildfires are killing off the shrubs and trees when they are too young, the landscape will eventually shift to cultivating a fast-growing plant, such as grasses. Animals that rely on the slow-growing shrubs and trees will no longer reap their benefits, and will have to adapt to new plant life to survive.

Grassland Habitats

Grassland ecosystems support a huge array of wildlife, especially grazing animals. Some of these animals include zebras, bison, antelope, lions, and cheetahs. Grassland habitats are sensitive to climatic changes, because they rely heavily on specific temperature and precipitation patterns to produce specific types of vegetation. Climate change causes droughts, precipitation shifts, increasing temperatures, and increased wildfires to the grasslands. Therefore, the vegetation that animals are accustomed to will be drastically reduced as climate change intensifies. Since grassland ecosystems are a home to mostly grazing animals, sufficient vegetation is instrumental to their survival. As seen with marine habitats, grassland habitats rely on a fragile food chain. Herbivores, such as zebras, eat grassland vegetation, and carnivores, such as lions, eat the zebras. Disturbance to one species will lead to the disturbance in another species, in an ongoing domino effect. 

Sources: Conservation in a Changing Climate, NASA, National Geographic, World Wildlife Foundation