Some of climate change’s most easy-to-spot impacts have, historically, been in the animal kingdom. Changing weather patterns have caused species ranges to shift, created a mismatch between migration arrival and the timing of bud bursts and insect hatching, and made it difficult for some species’ babies to survive. Ocean acidification, another product of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, has also created highly-visible impacts on the marine ecosystem, as has increased ocean temperatures.
Many of these impacts have been visible for years, unveiled by scientists working to catalog how climate change is already affecting the world’s wildlife. But a few animals were thrown into the spotlight this year for their particular vulnerability to climate change.
These huge marine mammals grabbed headlines in October after an absence of summer sea ice, the walrus’ preferred resting grounds, forced more than 35,000 of them to gather on a beach in Northwest Alaska.
This massive gathering of walrus is a new phenomenon, but it wasn’t unique to 2014: mass walrus gatherings have been occurring on Alaska’s shore nearly every year since 2007. Tony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who’s a member of the Walrus Research Program in Anchorage, Alaska, told ThinkProgress in October that walrus haul-outs just don’t happen at this scale when summer sea ice is at normal levels.
“Under historical conditions, there has always been sea ice over the Chukchi Sea over the summer,” he said. “This is a real change that we see thousands and tens of thousands of animals coming to shore and resting together in these large haul-outs.”
For now, we don’t know how walrus will respond to shrinking sea ice in the future — whether they’ll keep hauling out on Alaska beaches or if they’ll find new places to rest. But it’s clear that sea ice will likely continue declining in the Arctic: each decade since the late 1970s has shown a steady decline in summer Arctic sea ice, and hit a record low minimum extent in September 2012.
Walrus aren’t the only animals threatened by melting sea ice, either. Polar bears, who depend on the sea ice for their wintertime hunting of ringed seals, are perhaps the most well-known victim, but studies have found that wolves, arctic foxes, grizzly bears and caribou could also be impacted as the ice melts.
Though scientists have warned before of climate change’s potential impact on birds, especially migratory ones, a comprehensive report from Audubon this year made the link truly hit home for many Americans. The report warned that nearly half of all North American bird species are threatened by climate change, with some birds at risk of losing 100 percent of their current ranges due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns. Ten states plus the District of Columbia are at risk of losing their state bird completely, with iconic birds such as the Baltimore oriole shifting its range to regions with more favorable climates.
In Minnesota, the prospect of losing the beloved loon has Matthew Anderson, executive director of Minnesota’s Audubon chapter, calling for more Minnesotans to vote with birds in mind.
“We know that whether you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent — or heck, even if you don’t vote — people here love the loon, and if you’re going to be a leader, an elected official in Minnesota, I think it’s really clear that [climate change] is an issue that everyone should be expected to have a plan to address,” Anderson told ThinkProgress in September.
The threats birds face from climate change are vast and vary widely depending on the species. A study released this year was one of the first to document climate change’s impact on seabirds, finding that in Argentia, heat, heavy rains, and strong storms are killing off Magellanic penguin chicks, whose soft down can quickly become drenched in heavy rains, causing some chicks to die. Peregrine falcon chicks in Canada are suffering from similar problems as penguin chicks, and pelican chicks are dying off in North Dakota, too, due to adult pelicans showing up too early to their breeding sites, thus exposing their chicks to unpredictable spring weather and making them vulnerable to early spring freezes.
Scientists have found that certain Alpine mountain goats are shrinking, and that the changes in size are linked with temperature changes. A study published in October looked at Alpine chamois mountain goats and found that adolescent goats weighed about 25 percent less than their peers in the 1980s did — a finding that the researchers called “striking.”
The researchers think that increased temperatures could be changing the goats’ feeding behavior: chamois goats typically avoid foraging during the hottest parts of the day, in order to avoid overheating, and when the temperature remains high all day, the goats don’t eat as much in general. Temperatures that are too high for too long, therefore, could result in goats that eat less overall, and don’t grow as large as their ancestors. It’s not certain, however, how this change in size could impact the goats. It could help them survive hot summers, but could also mean they aren’t as capable of withstanding harsh Alpine winters.
Salmon, Trout And Other California Fish
The continued, brutal drought in California took its toll on the state’s fish this year. A July population assessment for Chinook salmon and Steelhead in California’s Salmon River found that 200 to 600 young fish died before getting the chance to spawn, due to low water levels fueled by the state’s major drought. A month earlier, California officials evacuated rainbow trout and steelhead from two hatcheries into state waterways when the fish were about six months old — half a year earlier than the hatchery-raised fish are usually released. Despite the fact that these young fish aren’t yet prepared for life outside the hatchery, officials worried that if they waited much longer, the fish would die in hotter-than-usual water.
This year, California also shipped 50 percent more young hatchery-raised salmon by truck to the ocean than usual — a method the state chose over letting the fish complete the migration in the local waterways — due to fears of too-warm and too-low river and lake water.
Researchers and beekeepers have been sounding the alarm on the uncertain future of managed honeybees for years, as bees continue to die off and entire hives simply disappear. This year, the federal government took some steps to begin combating the crisis facing honeybees and other pollinators: in February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested $3 million into programs that aim to boost honeybee numbers, and in June, the White House created a pollinator health task force and announced initiatives to improve and increase habitat for pollinators.
But bees are still facing major challenges, both from climate change and form other stressors such as pesticides.
Other insects, too, have been found to be struggling to adapt to environmental changes. The western glacier stonefly, a rare species of insect that’s found only in Glacier National Park, makes its home in glacier-fed, coldwater streams in the park. As the park’s glaciers melt, scientists have found that the insect is abandoning many of the streams in its traditional range and moving to streams in higher elevations — prompting concerns that eventually, as the climate warms, the insect will run out of sufficiently-cold streams in which to live. A study this year also found that temperature extremes are impacting the distribution of insects.
Shrimp, Scallops And Other Marine Life
As humans pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the oceans are becoming more acidic, a change that’s causing problems for many of the creatures that live in the sea — especially those with shells. This February, acidic waters in the Pacific Northwest killed off 10 million scallops.
And increased ocean temperature is causing problems for marine life, too. In October, scientists recommended that Maine cancel its shrimp season due to depleted shrimp populations in the region.
Marine life’s struggle with warming and acidifying waters won’t end with 2014, but a few studies this year did provide some hope for the future of the ocean ecosystem. One found that protecting coral grazers such as parrotfish and sea urchins is key to making coral reefs more resilient, and that the loss of these grazers — from overfishing, pollution and other impacts — is one of the most pressing threats coral reefs face today. According to the study, reefs where parrotfish were protected were some of the healthiest in the ocean, proving that, though climate change poses a major threat to oceans, simple conservation policies can make a big difference in ocean health.