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33% of World's Habitat at Risk from Global Warming

Warming Could Be Death Knell to Some U.S. Landscapes

Washington, DC - Global warming could forever change the tapestry of species in many of the world's unique habitats, and cause the eventual extinction of certain plant and animal species, according to a new study released today by World Wildlife Fund.

The report, "Global Warming and Terrestrial Biodiversity Decline," shows how global warming could fundamentally alter one third of plant and animal habitats by the end of this century. Even in patches of habitat that persist into the future, local species loss may be as high as 20% in the most vulnerable arctic and mountain ecosystems such as northern Alaska, Russia's Tamyr Peninsula and southeastern Australia. This is the first study attempting to quantify the possible loss of land-based species on a global scale as a result of global warming. It is also the first worldwide examination of the impact on species in isolated habitats.

In the United States, few regions are spared as more than one-third of existing habitats in 11 states - Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas - could be changed from what they are today. Most of the northern spruce and fir forest of New England and New York could be ultimately lost. Other U.S. habitat losses range from 25% in Georgia to 44% in Maine.

In the northern latitudes of Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, where warming is predicted to be most rapid, up to 70 percent of habitat could be lost. Russia, Canada, Kyrgystan, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Uruguay, Bhutan and Mongolia are likely to lose 45 per cent or more of current habitat while many coastal and island species will be at risk from the combined threat of warming oceans, sea-level rise and range shifts.

"As global warming accelerates, plants and animals will come under increasing pressure to migrate to find suitable habitat. Some will just not be able to move fast enough," said Jay Malcolm, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, one of the authors of the report. "In some places, plants would need to move ten times faster than they did during the last ice age merely to survive. It is likely that global warming will mean extinction for some plants and animals."

Most at risk species are rare or live in isolated or fragmented habitats. They include the Gelada baboon in Ethiopia, the mountain pygmy possum of Australia, the monarch butterfly at its Mexican wintering grounds, and the spoon-billed sandpiper at its breeding sites in Russia's arctic Far East.

"Cold weather species like the sugar maple may be completely driven out of the northeastern United States, thereby sounding the death knell for the that region's maple syrup industry" said Adam Markham, Executive Director of Clean Air-Cool Planet and co-author of the WWF report. "Bird and mammal species of the forests of northern New England, including spruce grouse, Bicknell's thrush and marten are especially vulnerable to global warming."

The analysis also factors in the effect that barriers such as water, human development and agriculture could have on the survival of those species able to migrate fast enough to keep pace with rapid warming. Conditions today make it far harder for species to move than ever before. Rare, isolated or slow-moving species will lose out to weeds and pests that can move, or adapt quickly.

These predictions are based on a moderate estimate that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double from pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. However, some projections suggest a three-fold increase in concentrations by 2100 unless action is taken to rein in the inefficient use of coal, oil and gas for energy production. In this case, the effects on nature could be even more dramatic.

The increase in global temperatures during the late 20th century was unprecedented in the last 1000 years. Reports of the impacts of global warming on nature are already coming in from many parts of the world. Costa Rica's golden toad may be extinct because of its inability to adapt to climate change; birds such as the great tit in Scotland and the Mexican jay in Arizona are beginning to breed earlier in the year; butterflies are shifting their ranges northwards throughout Europe; alpine plants are moving to higher altitudes in Austria; and mammals in many parts of the Arctic - including polar bears, walrus and caribou - are beginning to feel the impacts of reduced sea ice and warming tundra habitat.

"This is a wake-up call to world leaders - if they do not act to stop global warming, wildlife around the globe will suffer the consequence," said Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF's Climate Change Campaign. "World leaders must give top priority to reducing levels of carbon pollution. They must not miss the chance of this November's climate summit for stepping up action and preventing a catastrophe that could change the world as we know it."

At a news conference at 10am in Toronto, webcast live on www.wwf.ca, Jose Kusugak, president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, will speak on the subject of economic and cultural perils facing the country's far north populations as a result of climate change. Others speaking at the press conference include: Dr. David Suzuki, Monte Hummel, president of WWF Canada, and Dr. Jay Malcolm.

Download a copy of the report:
Global Warming and Terrestrial Biodiversity Decline (PDF format)