Sightings from the Treehouse: Elements of Climate Change – Ecosystems on the Move

Sightings from the Treehouse is an investigative blog series on climate change and the environment, from GIPL’s Power Wise Director, Bob Donaghue. You can read the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth blogs here. 


Nature has evolved over billions of years by adapting to changes in its environment. As life evolved, it filled niches in both the water and then on land. Those species that could not adapt went extinct, such as the dinosaurs, opening up opportunities for mammals to fill many new niches and expand their range, numbers and types. This is known as survival of the fittest, the keystone of evolution. The changes that are occurring on our planet are presenting similar opportunities for species better able to adapt and resulting in decreasing numbers and extinction for those that cannot.  
Ecosystem changes are global in extent and are occurring now. According to the report, Ecological Impacts of Climate Change by the National Academies, two types of ecological impacts are being seen as a result of climate change: shifts in species range limiting where they can survive and reproduce, and changes affecting the timing of biological activities such as breeding or blooming times. They indicate over 40 percent of wild plants and animals that have been studied are relocating to adjust to changing climate conditions. Those plants and animals that cannot migrate, such as polar bears, will decrease in numbers and become extinct.  Seasonal changes are happening 15-20 days earlier for many species, resulting in migratory birds arriving sooner, butterflies emerging earlier and plants blooming earlier. Some other changes include variations in bird migration, and shifting of ocean phytoplankton and fish from cold water to warm water habitats. Over 70 percent of tree species in North America are already migrating with beech, maple, and birch trees expected to be gone from the Northeast by 2100.      

Across the US, ecosystem changes are underway and others are predicted. Pacific fisheries are seeing more warm water species replacing cold water species as they migrate north due to warming oceans. Vineyards could be downgraded as optimum wine growing regions move north. The arctic food chain is rapidly changing as shrubs and hardwoods are migrating into areas of melting permafrost, releasing methane stored in the formerly frozen tundra. Melting ice is affecting ice-dependent animals such as polar bears and walruses.  

Western mountain areas will continue to experience greater droughts, fires and insect infestations. The Southwestern deserts can expect more invasive grasses which feed wildfires.  Sea level rise will have devastating ecological impacts on the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp of South Florida through habitat loss and saltwater intrusion. In addition, the Northeastern fisheries are suffering from over exploitation and likely migration of cod to cooler northern waters.  
Increasing ocean temperatures and acidification are already bleaching coral reefs around the world. Even if countries meet their emission reduction commitments to stay below the 3.6 degree F goal, 73 percent of coral reefs around the world will be bleached and dying by 2070.
An ecological threshold is the point where there is an abrupt change in an ecosystem, a change which is irreversible and moves the ecosystem to a new state. For example, as Arctic ice melts, the reflection of heat from the sun decreases and absorption of heat by the dark ocean increases – a positive feedback loop. This is leading to rapid glacial melt and sea level rise and methane releases from melting permafrost.  All exacerbating the already dire climate disruption in the Arctic and possibly dooming efforts to reverse the effects of climate change. Not only will the Arctic ocean life change from warming temperatures and ocean acidification, but boreal ecosystems are already changing rapidly from melting permafrost.   Once these thresholds are breached, there is no going back for many plant and animal species.  
In a matter of 200 years, through over exploitation, habitat destruction and warming temperatures, we are in what many scientists consider the Sixth Mass Extinction.  Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson estimates in his book, Future of Life, that 50 percent of higher life forms will become extinct by 2100 if human disruption of their ecosystems is not stopped.       


Extinction is forever. Just imagine had Noah arbitrarily kicked half of the creatures overboard that were on the Ark. In a sense, that is exactly what is happening today. You know – Destroying Creation. What is your faith community doing about it?
Pope Francis dives directly into the loss of biodiversity in Laudato Si which he says is due to short-sightedness in societies’ economies, commerce and production, while caring for our ecosystems requires far-sightedness.  Presbyterians also call for the end of mass extinctions.  In fact, most of the world’s religions have proclamations addressing climate change and its impact on Creation. Unfortunately, many of these statements were prepared almost a decade ago. Are these directives being integrated into their individual congregation’s weekly liturgy or teachings? If yes, great. If no, why not?