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Global warming: Wildlife facing extreme weather risks

Zoologists develop new tool to identify threatened populations of animals

Ice-dependent species like penguins are at risk from climate change. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Extreme weather in 2011 may or may not be linked directly with global warming, but most climate scientists agree that droughts, flooding and other anomalous events are likely to become more frequent in coming decades.

Along with potential impacts to human civiliation, the planet’s wildlife is also facing  an unprecedented threat from natural disasters exacerbated by climate change — with no good way to identify vulnerable animal populations, according to a new paper published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Now scientists from the Zoological Society of London have come up with a method to pinpoint populations likely to experience drastic changes in their population size when faced with extreme events.

By assessing three separate factors — sensitivity, exposure and adaptability — scientists will be able to predict which species have a chance of bouncing back from natural disasters, and which species might struggle to recover.

“As climate change leads to more frequent and severe natural disasters, we need to identify animals at risk of being washed away in a flood, or destroyed by wildfire. We can then prioritise and adapt current management practices to guarantee the survival of those vulnerable populations,” said the zoological society’s Eric Isai Ameca y Juarez, lead author of the paper.

Spotting vulnerable populations can be tricky. What might be a catastrophe for some species could be good news for others. In France in 1999, hurricane Lothar led to an increase in the availability of winter food for roe deer. However, two years later in Belize, more than 40 percent of the black howler monkey population was wiped out when hurricane Iris destroyed their rainforest habitat.

“Extreme natural events represent a growing threat to biodiversity, and this might be particularly true for populations already under pressure due to habitat degradation or overexploitation,” said Dr Nathalie Pettorelli. “We propose a way to acknowledge this growing threat and carry out vulnerability assessments, in the hope that these will be taken into account when evaluating species extinction risk.”

The proposed method will support previous work to assess species vulnerability to climate change and enable scientists to quantify the impact of increasing occurrence and severity of extreme events on animal populations.

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