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11 Nov 2016

Climate change is changing you

Black Panther © Flickr/Cloudtail
Black Panther © Flickr/Cloudtail
By Luca Bonaccorsi

A new study reveals ongoing alterations in shape, size, sex and distribution of animals and plants are due to man-made warming. 

Paolo lives in an area that is getting hotter. He must have noticed that his children are smaller than they should be. And not just in stature – their arms and legs are proportionately smaller than you'd expect. Years later he has noticed that his grandchildren are even smaller still.

Bjorn lives in a Nordic area and the warm season is now longer, and crops more abundant. He must have noticed his children are bigger than you’d expect. And his grandchildren are even taller still.

Mohamed lives in an area increasingly susceptible to drought. He has noticed that his skin is growing thicker and lucid and waterproof, increasing substantially his water retention. In Lola’s village there used to be about one man for every woman. Now, men are hard to find.

These are not scenes taken from a sci-fi b-movie. It’s what you would actually see if we could firstly, fast forward time and secondly, limit the level of insulation of the human species from changes in the environment due to progress and technology.

How do we know for sure? Because when it comes to animal and plants, things are no different. The scary processes described above are in fact documented trends affecting our fauna and flora.

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These are the new findings revealed by a study led by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, BirdLife International and other institutions, published this week in the prestigious journal Science.

The study contains a vast number of unsettling data. Some salamanders have shrunk in size by some 8% over the past 50 years (equivalent to the average human becoming 15 centimetres shorter). Over the same period three species of passerine birds in the north-east of the USA have seen their wing span reduced by 4%, Red knots have smaller offspring, with shorter bills (not as good for foraging hence affecting negatively their growth prospects). The opposite is happening to some mammals in colder area where warmer weather means more food: American martens and yellow-bellied marmots are getting bigger.

Likewise, melanism (such as that witnessed in black panthers or crows) is decreasing as it does not favour thermoregulation. And species whose sex determination is affected by temperatures are witnessing changes in the sex ratio of their population: some species of lizards are creating increasingly more males, some turtle species more females.

“We now have evidence that, with only a ~1 degree Celsius of warming globally, major impacts are already being felt in natural systems” says study lead author Brett Scheffers. “Genes are changing, species’ physiology and physical features such as body size are changing, species are moving and we see clear signs of entire ecosystems under stress, all in response to changes in climate on land and in the ocean.” Researchers discovered that more than 80 percent of ecological processes that form the foundation for healthy marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems already show signs of responses to climate change.

Bird science is proving, once more, very important in understanding the consequences of global warming. According to Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International: “Some of the best data on climate change impacts come from birds. For example, bird population trends in North America and Europe show a clear signal of climate change since the 1980s. While some species have benefited, many more have undergone declines.”

Until now, the narratives around climate change had failed to convey how pervasive the impacts could be. Drought, wildfires, rising sea levels and extreme weather are all phenomena portrayed with accuracy in the climate action camp. This new publication adds a new, hugely unsettling, dimension to the concept of climate change”. This change does not simply exist 'outside' of us in the form of weather phenomena. Instead, it is inside all of us, changing the very alphabet of our identity: our genetic code.