Life on Earth has already been fundamentally altered by global warming, affecting the genes of plants and animals and altering every ecosystem on the planet, according to a major review of the scientific literature.
A paper in the leading journal Science warned the changes were so dramatic – and potentially dangerous – that scientists might be forced to intervene in some cases to create “human-assisted evolution”.
One of the main concerns about climate change is it will seriously damage food production, particularly in places prone to flooding and drought, leading to mass famines and the forced migration of climate refugees.
The researchers found that 82 per cent of the natural ecological processes that support healthy ecosystems on land and sea had been affected in a way that had not been expected “for decades”.
The average global temperature has risen by one degree Celsius since the 1880s, as humans have pumped greenhouse gases from fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
The researchers said this had “already had broad and worrying impacts on natural systems, with accumulating consequences for people”.
“Minimising the impacts of climate change on core ecological processes must now be a key policy priority for all nations,” they wrote in the paper.
“It is now up to national governments to make good on the promises they made in Paris [at last year's climate summit] through regular tightening of emission targets, and also to recognise the importance of healthy ecosystems in times of unprecedented change.
“Time is running out for a globally synchronised response to climate change that integrates adequate protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”
Many species are shifting towards the poles as the world has warms, while others are seeking higher ground.
Marine species have expanded into areas that were usually too cold at a rate of 72km per decade, while land species have done so at 6km per decade, the paper said.
Animals in decline
Animals in decline
1/8 Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)
Where: Orkney Islands. What: Between 2001-2006, numbers in Orkney declined by 40 per cent. Why: epidemics of the phocine distemper virus are thought to have caused major declines, but the killing of seals in the Moray Firth to protect salmon farms may have an impact.
2/8 African lion (Panthera leo)
Where: Ghana. What: In Ghana’s Mole National Park, lion numbers have declined by more than 90 per cent in 40 years. Why: local conflicts are thought to have contributed to the slaughter of lions and are a worrying example of the status of the animal in Western and Central Africa.
3/8 Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Where: Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica. What: Numbers are down in both the Atlantic and Pacific. It declined by 95 per cent between 1989-2002 in Costa Rica. Why: mainly due to them being caught as bycatch, but they’ve also been affected by local developments.
4/8 Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Where: South Atlantic. What: A rapid decline. One population, from Bird Island, South Georgia, declined by 50 per cent between 1972-2010, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Why: being caught in various commercial longline fisheries.
5/8 Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica)
Where: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. What: fall in populations has been dramatic. In the early 1990s numbers were over a million, but are now estimated to be around 50,000. Why: the break up of the former USSR led to uncontrolled hunting. Increased rural poverty means the species is hunted for its meat
6/8 Swordfish (Xiphias gladius)
Where: found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate seas. Why: at risk from overfishing and as a target in recreational fishing. A significant number of swordfish are also caught by illegal driftnet fisheries in the Mediterranean
7/8 Argali Sheep (Ovis mammon)
Where: Central and Southern Asian mountains,usually at 3,000-5,000 metres altitude. Why: domesticated herds of sheep competing for grazing grounds. Over-hunting and poaching.
8/8 Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)
Where: the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands (Polynesia), north to the Ryukyu Islands (south-west Japan), and south to New Caledonia. Why: Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and trading of the species
Other creatures are changing shape, with many getting smaller as a higher surface-area-to-body-mass ratio makes it easier to stay cool.
For example, six species of woodland salamander in the Appalachian Mountains have undergone an average eight per cent reduction in body size over the past 50 years.
Slightly smaller lizards might not sound like something to overly concern humans, but there is evidence this response is also affecting important sources of food.
“Some fish species appear to be shrinking, but attributing this solely to ocean warming is difficult because size-dependent responses can be triggered by commercial fishing as well as long-term climate change,” the researchers wrote.
“However, long-term trend analyses show convincingly that eight commercial fish species in the North Sea underwent simultaneous reductions in body size over a 40-year period because of ocean warming, resulting in 23 per cent lower yields.”
Changes are also taking place on a much bigger scale.
In Alaska, the researchers said “wholesale biome shifts” had been observed with the “tundra … transitioning to boreal conditions”.
“These are clear signs of large-scale ecosystem change and disruption, in which disequilibrium rapidly pushes the system into a new state,” they wrote.
And such ecological regime shifts can have dire results.
“For example, some reefs are transitioning from coral- to algal-dominated states as a consequence of mass coral mortality, whereas kelp forests are turning into rocky barrens in temperate seas,” the researchers said.
“In lakes, climate change has increased the risk of regime shifts from clear-water to turbid states and increased the occurrence of cyanobacteria blooms.”
All this turmoil is likely to be too much for some forms of life. For example, some trees do not reproduce fast enough to shift their range uphill to escape the warming climate.
The researchers suggested humans might have to step in to help nature.
“One such strategy is to use assisted gene flow, the managed movement of individuals or gametes between populations to mitigate local maladaptation in the short and long term,” the researchers said.
“Human-assisted evolution may … be a key strategy in maintaining reef dependent fisheries by accelerating and enhancing the stress tolerance of corals.”
The researchers pointed to declines in the yields of significant food crops, such as rich, maize and coffee, “in response to the combined effects of rising temperatures and increasing precipitation variability over past decades”.
“Genetics is being used to counteract decreasing yields in some key crops such as wheat (for which, globally, yields have declined by six per cent since the early 1980s) through crossing domesticated crops with wild relatives to maintain the evolutionary potential of varieties,” they wrote.
“Yet, some important wild strains are also showing signs of impact from climate change.
“Losing genetic resources in nature may undermine future development of novel crop varieties and compromise key strategies that humans use to adapt to climate change.”
Farmers in temperate areas are also now using a specially cultivated peach, called UFBest, which requires fewer chilly days than typical varieties after experiencing a fall in fruit quality and yield.
Plagues of insect pests are also a growing problem, particularly in the forests of North America.
“Several native insect species from North America, with no prior records of severe infestation, have recently emerged as severe pathogens of forest resources because of changes in population dynamics,” the researchers said.
“These include the Aspen leaf miner, the leafblotch miner, and the Janet’s looper, which have decimated millions of hectares of aspen, willows, and spruce-fir forests since the early 1990s.
“Known pests such as mountain and southern pine beetles and spruce beetles have recently expanded their distribution and infestation intensity on commercially important pine and spruce trees.
“These outbreaks may increase in the future because hundreds of plant pest and pathogen species have shifted their distributions 2 to 3.5km per year pole-ward since the 1960s.”
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
And humans should take note, as mosquitoes that carry diseases like malaria, Zika and dengue are also on the move.
One of the researchers, Professor James Watson, of Queensland University, said: “Some people didn't expect this level of change for decades.
“The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere, with no ecosystem on Earth being spared. It is no longer sensible to consider climate change as a concern only for the future.
“Emissions targets must be actively achieved and time is running out for a synchronised global response to climate change that safeguards biodiversity and ecosystem services."Reuse content