Global Warming May Cause Far Higher Extinction of Biodiversity Than Previously Thought

If global warming continues as expected, it is estimated that almost a third of all flora and fauna species worldwide could become extinct. Scientists … discovered that the proportion of actual biodiversity loss should quite clearly be revised upwards: by 2080, more than 80% of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms, according to researchers in the title story of the journal Nature Climate Change.  The study is the first world-wide to quantify the loss of biological diversity on the basis of genetic diversity.

That’s from the news release of a study, “Cryptic biodiversity loss linked to global climate change” (subs. req’d).  The recent scientific literature continues to paint a bleak picture of what Homo sapiens ‘sapiens’ is doing to the other species on the planet.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.”  That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels of a bit more than 4.0°C.  So the 5°C rise we are facing on our current emissions path would likely put extinctions beyond the high end of that range.

Last fall, the Royal Society ran a special issue on “Biological diversity in a changing world,” concluding “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.”

I realize that the mass extinction of non-human life on this planet isn’t going to be a great driver for human action.  Most people simply don’t get that the mass extinctions we are causing could directly harm our children and grandchildren as much as sea level rise.  Such extinctions threaten the entire fabric of life on which we depend for food, among other things.  This may be clearest in the case of marine life — see “Geological Society (8/10): Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century.”  And then there’s the worst-case scenario in Nature Stunner — “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton”: “Microscopic life crucial to the marine food chain is dying out. The consequences could be catastrophic.”

Life matters.  Here’s more from the release:

Most common models on the effects of climate change on flora and fauna concentrate on “classically” described species, in other words groups of organisms that are clearly separate from each other morphologically. Until now, however, so-called cryptic diversity has not been taken into account. It encompasses the diversity of genetic variations and deviations within described species, and can only be researched fully since the development of molecular-genetic methods. As well as the diversity of ecosystems and species, these genetic variations are a central part of global biodiversity.

In a pioneering study, scientists from the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturkunde have now examined the influence of global warming on genetic diversity within species.

Over 80 percent of genetic variations may become extinct

The distribution of nine European aquatic insect species, which still exist in the headwaters of streams in many high mountain areas in Central and Northern Europe, was modelled. They have already been widely researched, which means that the regional distribution of the inner-species diversity and the existence of morphologically cryptic, evolutionary lines are already known.

If global warming does take place in the range that is predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these creatures will be pushed back to only a few small refugia, e.g. in Scandinavia and the Alps, by 2080, according to model calculations. If Europe’s climate warms up by up to two degrees only, eight of the species examined will survive, at least in some areas; with an increase in temperature of 4 degrees, six species will probably survive in some areas by 2080. However, due to the extinction of local populations, genetic diversity will decline to a much more dramatic extent.

According to the most pessimistic projections, 84 percent of all genetic variations would die out by 2080; in the “best case,” two-thirds of all genetic variations would disappear. The aquatic insects that were examined are representative for many species of mountainous regions of Central Europe.

Slim chances in the long term for the emergence of new species and species survival

Carsten Nowak of the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturkunde, explains: “Our models of future distribution show that the “species” as such will usually survive. However, the majority of the genetic variations, which in each case exist only in certain places, will not survive. This means that self-contained evolutionary lineages in other regions such as the Carpathians, Pyrenees or the German Central Uplands will be lost. Many of these lines are currently in the process of developing into separate species, but will become extinct before this is achieved, if our model calculations are accurate.”

Genetic variation within a species is also important for adaptability to changing habitats and climatic conditions. Their loss therefore also reduces the chances for species survival in the long term.

New approach for conservation

So the extinction of species hides an ever greater loss, in the form of the massive disappearance of genetic diversity. “The loss of biodiversity that can be expected in the course of global warming has probably been greatly underestimated in previous studies, which have only referred to species numbers,” says Steffen Pauls, Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), of the findings. However, there is also an opportunity to use genetic diversity in order to make conservation and environmental protection more efficient.

A topic that is subject to much discussion at present is how to deal with conservation areas under the conditions of climate change. The authors of the study urge that conservation areas should also be oriented to places where both a suitable habitat for the species and a high degree of inner-species genetic diversity can be preserved in the future. “It is high time,” says Nowak, “that we see biodiversity not only as a static accumulation of species, but rather as a variety of evolutionary lines that are in a constant state of change. The loss of one such line, irrespective of whether it is defined today as a “species” in itself, could potentially mean a massive loss in biodiversity in the future.”

To quote the Lorax, “Unless.”

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38 Responses to Global Warming May Cause Far Higher Extinction of Biodiversity Than Previously Thought

  1. Joan Savage says:

    American Chestnut trees, once common, are near extinction in large part because the early 20th century population was genetically too uniform. Almost all the trees succumbed to the invasive chestnut blight. Efforts to save the species focus on locating rare genetic variants with disease resistance.
    What led to an earlier loss of genetic biodiversity we may never know, but the species proved to lack a cryptic biodiversity that might have saved it.
    The chestnut example also brings up chaotic migrations of pest species that add novel selection pressures. As humans move, the insects, fungi, parasites and the like come along.

  2. Adrian says:

    This post expresses why the wildlife biologists, ecologists and conservationists I know have a much more urgent sense of GW dangers and of what needs to be done than nearly anyone else of my acquaintance (not knowing personally any climate scientists). They have a larger and better sense of what stands to be lost, and why. The studies add confirmation.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented strategic habitat conservation and is working to establish large scale Landscape Conservation Cooperatives with climate change as a motivating factor. See

    USFWS has an informative climate change site at

  3. John Tucker says:

    I dont understand why this is not being covered in the popular press. Recently a story confirming at least 10 percent species loss was skipped over too. Now that nightmare is low end.

    I missed this thank you for posting it.

    There are stories galore on Netflix price increases and really nothing of quality on the major news sites concerning climate.

    Even though it was up only for a ridiculously brief instant I assume you saw the Global energy use to jump 53% ( ) on cnn.

    Gas was the big winner, hydo and wind posting some modest gains. Nuclear doing disappointingly even before influence from Japan was factored in and solar not even rating.

    The full forecast : ( )

    I am honestly more disappointed with so called environmental groups than the popular press for not recognizing the scope of this disaster or presenting realistic and viable attempts at mitigation.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    So true what you say about the urgent sense. I’m an ecologist/environmental scientist, and you nailed me!
    In addition to your links..
    The US Forest Service has a Climate Change Atlas which compares tree habitat requirements to climate change models. A huge caveat the atlas is careful to make is that it only maps where a tree MIGHT live given future climate conditions, it doesn’t cross reference to projections for plagues of insects, or even how the trees could be moved fast enough to get to distant refugia.

  5. John McCormick says:

    John, we are being sold down the river by the big green. They haven’t come up with a new idea since Eileen Claussen at PEW invited big energy to join their dialogue group to advance cap and trade. Got us nowhere. Got the big energy and chemical guys a chance to crow they were in the game. it’s all about covering the mortgage payment, I guess.

    Do you ever see any big green ever commenting on this CP blog? Not since Fred Krupp weighed in and served us some kind of encouragement.

    Heck, Dave Hawkins at NRDC was pitching carbon capture and sequestration even when we knew it was a delay of game for the coal industry. Go figure.

    They don’t want to tip their hand that they have no clue what to do next. We’re in this alone.

    I gave up on the big green machine a while ago.

  6. John Tucker says:

    It is becoming painfully obvious they are at best, making things much worse than a low participation pragmatic scientific approach would dictate.

  7. PeterW says:

    Hey don’t worry I’m sure some bright Tea Party type will build an Ark.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    “If global warming continues as expected, it is estimated that almost a third of all flora and fauna species worldwide could become extinct.”

    Yes, global warming threatens much more than human civilization but, so far, most people don’t seem to be motivated by the threat of species loss or even mass extinction. I mean look at what happened to that poor researcher who spoke out on the plight of the polar bear. If polar bear extinction only results in government cover-up and no public outcry, if ocean acidifications threat to sea life gets no attention from the public, I doubt that many will be too concerned about lesser creatures like insects, no matter how important to the food chain they might be. Even the wolves are being ignored again so I’m not convinced that the average American is really too concerned about species loss.

  9. David K says:

    I would be wary of using the phytoplankton decline study as an example, that particular study has been disputed by other legitimate (field related) scientists with comments in peer review. While the original scientists responded in their own comment I err on the side of the critics. We just haven’t seen the level of ecosystem disruption a 40% decline would entail. That being said we definitely have entered the Anthropocene.

  10. Presently climate zones are moving northward in the temperate northern hemisphere at a rate that eclipses the average lifetime of forest trees. The implications of this for conservation are profound. Although we have long known that biological communities are dynamic in species composition, climate change has dramatically foreshortened the timeframe for species turnover. I agree with Nowak that many of the current paradigms of preservation simply will not work, and we now face the reality that a focus on preserving species will not be sufficient for the preservation of biological communities with their present composition. Given the current emissions trajectory, we must accept that our landscapes will be transformed, in some cases dramatically, within this century.

    Some conservation literature has focused less on species preservation and more on preserving community resilience and ecosystem processes and function. It has been argued that the identity of species in a community is less important than their ecological roles. Similarly, theoretical considerations suggest that maintaining ecosystem services does not require high species diversity. Recent data show quite the opposite. Work published in Nature suggests that maintaining high species diversity is necessary for maintaining ecosystem services. Thus, climate change may indeed compromise both species survival and ecosystem function, the loss of the latter resulting in a larger cascade of local extinctions. It seems that we must strive to maintain high species diversity as biological communities respond to climate change if we are to avoid the loss of ecosystem integrity and more widespread local extinctions. This is a much larger task than previously thought because maintaining high species diversity in the face of climate change requires a level of ecological engineering that is decidedly beyond the current state of the art.

    In my opinion we are far from being able to use adaptive management to ameliorate changes of this magnitude over such a rapid timeline. The theory and understanding of species interactions is simply not up to this task. As an ecologist, it is my judgement that our best hope is through aggressive mitigation of emissions combined with strategic management of global photosynthesis. Specifically, we must work to maintain the integrity of boreal and tropical forests if we are to have any hope of avoiding damaging feedbacks.

  11. Wes Rolley says:

    What we really need is a reality TV show where no one can figure out anything. Sorry, we got have that already. Has anyone asked the Kardasians to do a number on this topic? It may carry more weight than everything that McKibben, Gore and Romm are doing.

    I am a being a bit cynical, but when I see the numbers of people reading Climate Progress or Chris Mooney at Science Progress, and then start counting every time I see a television ad from Exxon-Mobil on tar sands exploitation creating jobs, or from on natural gas creating jobs, I think about how many people are seeing that compared to the numbers on our side.

    I would like to see the results of a focus group review of those ads and then start asking Big Green to start running their own.

  12. dick smith says:

    Interesting criticism. I’ve seen some university/government supported websites go silent on GW with the Republican takeover in Wisconsin. But, I hadn’t really noticed it with private groups.

  13. Joe Romm says:

    It hasn’t been disputed in the literature yet, to my knowledge. I read the comments and the response. I would agree it is not yet definitive — but it isn’t refuted yet either.

  14. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The increasing loss of plankton is an extremely worrying development that is not widely noted. Plankton is the base of the food chain for most of the oceans biodiversity, certainly what we value.

    Even without global warming, highly selective breeding has reduced genetic diversity of food plants and animals. We have been selecting winners, for today’s conditions. Today’s winners might be tomorrows loosers.

    How many types of bananas are in your local market? Probably one; Cavendish. If you have an upmarket market, you might have Lady Fingers as well.

    It is the same picture for wheat, single strains dominate the entire national crop. Intra variety variation is being systematically wiped out.

    Not only are we picking specific varieties, but specific gene lines within a variety. Not a good idea in a changing world.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Given that observations have significantly outstripped IPCC projections, presumably because only assumptions of linearity of discrete variables were built into the modelling, it is possible that this study also may prove ultra-conservative.

    I hope I’m wrong, ME

  16. David K says:

    My mistake, I assumed that comments were in some way vetted through a peer review type process. I still find including it to be questionable. The fact it has legitimate critics should lend it far less weight then the other references.

  17. Joe Romm says:

    No, comments aren’t peer-reviewed. If comments questioning studies invalidated them we’d hardly have any studies. You are entitled to call anything you want questionable, including germ theory. But the underlying science is widely known — warming isn’t good for phytoplankton. When you throw in the acidification and all the dead zones we are creating, the study remains entirely plausible and reasonable.

  18. David K says:

    I am not at ALL arguing that ocean acidification will somehow be good for phytoplankton, just that particular study may be flawed. What I thought was questionable was its inclusion in a list of other studies that as far as I know are not substantively debated.
    As far as the commenting, I would assume Nature does not post frivolous concerns as accepted Brief Communications. I just think it plays into actual deniers hands not to have a caveat to that study.
    Also I never thought the first time I posted on Climate Progress, I would be an argument with one of my favorite bloggers :-(

  19. Joe Romm says:

    You don’t read comments to articles often, do you. Articles are routinely critiqued. Yes, that had a bigger push back than most, but I thought the author’s replies were reasonable.

  20. John Tucker says:

    I think that the criticism here is green groups have begun to push unrealistic solutions, many that actually involve the increased use of fossil fuels and the misplacement and underutilization of renewables as it fits THEIR agenda or promotional efforts – not the realities of climate change.

    And its a criticism that is of increasing volume and relevance as the failure becomes more obvious and costly.

  21. Joan Savage says:

    Humanity’s major food crops are now from limited genetic material, thanks to mass agriculture narrowing the diversity of crops. Cultivars that can handle the heat, the wet, the dry, the pests, and the variability are precious defenses against food disaster.

    A companion to the foresight,
    “You ain’t seen nothing yet,”
    is the hindsight,
    “We don’t remember what we’re already missing.”

  22. Raul M. says:

    Joan is that an original quote? I didn’t find it using a quick google search. That is right on target I think.

  23. Raul M. says:

    I think that children could play with dragon dictation to learn spelling more easily and capital letters and punctuation. Just a thought.

  24. John McCormick says:

    John, it is to our benefit that U. S. big green staffers are where they are working and not answering calls coming in on 911;

  25. cynthia says:

    BEAUTIFUL PICTURE WITH BEAUTIFUL MEANING… should be made into a poster.

  26. Raul M. says:

    The story Noah, he worked with foresight using what was available to start a viable community that would land on the mountaintop and still use the ark as the water slowly receded…
    Certainly using foresight today, one could guess that the options for the future would have limitations and great thought could go into what would a basis of a genetic pool look like for so many types of life.
    Good luck.

  27. John McCormick says:

    Raul, tell me how Noah dragged his ark to the 4000 meter level of Mt. Ararat in Turkey.

    Sea level rise and all…but 12000 feet!!! Never did understand that part of the story.

  28. Raul M. says:

    I don’ know. But just for fun I downloaded an app called stupidity 2?, anyway I discovered my IQ is an astounding 6! The app is fun anyway.

  29. Raul M. says:

    John, by the way I think that some of the reason many of the old documents have lasted so long is that people were willing to do as told even when they didn’t understand. The hope is integral to the story though, that progress can be made even when every one of the human race will face terrible odds for survival and the thought of the natural needing refuge also is there.
    Be good.

  30. Bill G says:

    One third of flora and fauna will become extinct?

    That’s the best news I have heard in ages since top climate scientists like Lovelock and Hansen say 90 to 100% will become extinct.

    Is this a kind of Denial-lite for those of us who know something about the data?

  31. Bill G says:

    Stephen Mulkey,

    If you are not already familiar with it, study the Gaia theory, now widely accepted. It answers your questions about interdependence of species.

    You state, “our best hope is through aggressive mitigation of emissions combined with strategic management of global photosynthesis”

    That, sir, is a tall order! What odds would you give for achieving those two goals?

    Based on experience at emission reduction, I’d put odds very close to zero.

    Much more intelligent would be putting efforts toward studying possibilities of human survival. If consensus says survival is possible, then start planning and action for that survival.

    Continuing to talk about CO2 emission reduction seems like Denial on a new level.

  32. Bill G says:

    Regarding why we see almost zero realistic discussion of global warming in the popular press – Al Gore must have heard your question because he answers it directly in his recent Reality 24 hour series on environment. You must see his answer to you.

    A hint: he has lots of great data on how big tobacco companies were able to keep sales-killing information from the public.

    Vice President Gore’s whole presentation is exceptional. Google it.

  33. Bill G says:

    We have a political Party particularly interested in shutting down anything supporting global warming.

    They are in a position to de-fund the US Fish and Wildlife Service so I hope they don’t catch wind of these studies. If Perry is elected studies such as these will be first to go.

  34. Bill G says:

    Hey Pete,

    Don’t make fun of Noah and his Ark. Metaphorically, that is the kind of thinking we need right now.

    Where is our Noah? Please come forward now!

  35. Joan Savage says:

    As far as I know it’s mine, but in this day of sensory overload and 100th monkey phenomena, I’m grateful that you checked for other sources.

  36. Bill G says:

    Good for you – regarding the Noah analogy. We badly need this kind of thinking about survival. Why is it so rare?

    Maybe the money is in talking about and studying mitigation. No bucks $$ for survival thinking.

    I have always believed in “Follow the Money” in ALL fields.

  37. RaulM. says:

    Yeah so sad, looking at MoJo’s reveal of arctic iceloss and some projections of gassing from the areas that show the most ice loss, my guess is that weather will have the most dramatic aspects closest to the areas of out gassing. second guess is that as the gasses spread and with source continuing to out gas world weather is affected closest to highest concentrations most to changing overall weather patterns.
    Probably old shells are being revealed in the northern latitudes.

  38. Mark says:

    And to combat pests, drought, frost, and dropping soil fertility what do we do? Drive out heirloom varieties of agricultural crops and replace them with lab-derived, patented, and genetically identical monocrops…. almost begging for a pathogen to rise up and take out all… well what will it be first? All wheat? All corn? All soybeans? All denialism?

    PS, Then again, I’m not sure I’d call that last one a “pathogen”.