The Heat Is Online

To Flee the Heat, Animals Move North


Warming drives animals to higher ground, latitudes, study finds, Aug. 18, 2011

(CNN) -- A warming climate is driving animal species to higher latitudes and higher ground at a rate far faster than previously believed, researchers from Britain and Taiwan reported.

The researchers found habitats for a variety of species -- from English songbirds to Malaysian moths -- had shifted either uphill or away from the equator by an average of 17 kilometers (nearly 11 miles) per decade since the 1970s. That's nearly three times as fast as had previously been believed, said I-Ching Chen, the study's lead author.

The study was released by the journal Science, which is publishing the findings this week. It not only indicates faster changes, but also points more directly to climate change as the cause than did previous studies, said Chen, a researcher at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

Shifts in habitat were greater in regions where temperatures have gone up more, she said.

"The relationship between distribution change and temperature change is significantly correlated," Chen said. "I think that's strong evidence that global warming caused this change."

The migration isn't universal, said Chris Thomas, a biologist at Britain's University of York and the project's leader. About a quarter of the roughly 1,500 species examined in the study moved toward warmer latitudes, in some cases due to the loss of habitat or man-made obstacles such as belts of farmland that prevented them from following other animal life north.

But on average, animal life is pulling back from the warmest regions of the planet "much faster than was previously recognized," he said. And many mountain-dwelling species like the American pika, a rabbit-like mammal native to the North American west, are being forced to a limited range of higher ground.

Chen, who studied the geometrid moths of Borneo's Mount Kinabalu in 2007, said the habitat of those insects had retreated by an average of 67 meters (220 feet) uphill since the last major study, in the mid-1960s.

"They have nowhere to go, and they will probably be extinct in the near future," she said.

Thomas said scientists still need a better understanding of why the effects vary so greatly. But from a public policy standpoint, the findings suggest time to save some of those threatened species is running out.

"We are now in a position where we have to manage change to environmental systems rather than try to keep them the way they were," he said.

Scientists compared data from studies as far back as the early 20th century for this report, Thomas said.

"This gives you a more robust estimate of what change is taking place than any individual study," he said.

Critters moving away from global warming faster 

The Associated Press, Aug. 18, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Animals across the world are fleeing global warming by heading north much faster than they were less than a decade ago, a new study says. 

About 2,000 species examined are moving away from the equator at an average rate of more than 15 feet per day, about a mile per year, according to new research published Thursday in the journal Science which analyzed previous studies. Species are also moving up mountains to escape the heat, but more slowly, averaging about 4 feet a year.

The species — mostly from the Northern Hemisphere and including plants — moved in fits and starts, but over several decades it averages to about 8 inches an hour away from the equator.

"The speed is an important issue," said study main author Chris Thomas of the University of York. "It is faster than we thought."

Included in the analysis was a 2003 study that found species moving north at a rate of just more than a third of a mile per year and up at a rate of 2 feet a year. Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas, who conducted that study, said the new research makes sense because her data ended around the late 1990s and the 2000s were far hotter.

 Federal weather data show the last decade was the hottest on record, and 2010 tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record. Gases from the burning of fossil fuel, especially carbon dioxide, are trapping heat in the atmosphere, warming the Earth and changing the climate in several ways, according to the overwhelming majority of scientists and the world's top scientific organizations.

 As the temperatures soared in the 2000s, the species studied moved faster to cooler places, Parmesan said. She pointed specifically to the city copper butterfly in Europe and the purple emperor butterfly in Sweden. The comma butterfly in Great Britain has moved more than 135 miles in 21 years, Thomas said.

 It's "independent confirmation that the climate is changing," Parmesan said.

 One of the faster moving species is the British spider silometopus, Thomas said. In 25 years, the small spider has moved its home range more than 200 miles north, averaging 8 miles a year, he said.

 Stanford University biologist Terry Root, who wasn't part of this study but praised it as clever and conservative, points to another species, the American pika, a rabbitlike creature that has been studied in Yellowstone National Park for more than a century. The pika didn't go higher than 7,800 feet in 1900, but in 2004 they were seen at 9,500 feet, she said.

 For Thomas, this is something he notices every time he returns to his childhood home in southern England. The 51-year-old biologist didn't see the egret, a rather warm climate bird, in the Cuckmere Valley while growing up. But now, he said, "All the ditches have little egrets. It was just a bizarre sight."

 Thomas plotted the movement of the species and compared it to how much they would move based on temperature changes. It was a near perfect match, showing that temperature changes explain what's happening to the critters and plants, Thomas said. The match wasn't quite as exact with the movement up mountains and Thomas thinks that's because species went north instead or they were blocked from going up.

 Thomas found that the further north the species live, the faster they moved their home base. That makes sense because in general northern regions are warming more than those closer to the equator..

 Conservation biologist Mike Dombeck, a former U.S. Forest Service chief, said changes in where species live — especially movements up mountains — is a problem for many threatened species. Thomas said what he's studied isn't about some far off problem.

 "It's already affected the entire planet's wildlife," Thomas said in a phone interview. "It's not a matter that might happen in the lifetime of our children and our grandchildren. If you look in your garden you can see the effects of climate change already."