The armadillo in my backyard: How climate change leads to species displacement

Almost a year ago on May, 29, 2017, a Kentucky law enforcement officer found a dead armadillo in Whitley County, an unprecedented sighting for him. The story was reported in the local news along with other odd animal sightings. Anecdotes like these are becoming commonplace.

In a Sunday Facebook post, Whitley County Sheriff Colan Harrell said the discovery of the mammal was a first for him.

“In my 46 years of law enforcement and entire life in Kentucky, I have never seen an armadillo in Kentucky,” Harrell wrote.

For climate scientists of the Great Plains, sightings of nine-banded armadillos even further north in Nebraska are symptoms of the vast worldwide displacement of species underway. This migration is due to the impacts of global warming. Plants and animals are increasingly affected by climatic changes that push them towards cooler climes.

Trees are climbing mountains toward higher altitudes where the air is cooler. Fish are also searching for relief as the ocean’s waters face greater acidification. Coastlines are met with increasing levels of salinity, which pressures plants and animals to recede and search for fresh water sources. Animals as diverse as moose and octopi are pushed closer to the poles or deeper into the sea to seek a comfortable temperature zone.

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Plant, Animal and Human Migration

Interestingly, human patterns of migration reflect similar causes. For instance, the presence of brackish water due to sea level rise has caused the crops of the island nation of Kiribati to die off. Their president has thus decided to migrate the entire nation of 100,000 people to Fiji by purchasing land there. Such a consequence is reminiscent of the presence of rotting root systems that literally smell like a sulfurous brew in the wetlands of Maine, where the plant life is also struggling to migrate inland away from salinity. Scientists there have been trying to measure the net balances of greenhouse gases in such areas to understand the role of sea level rise in the release of additional methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And just as drought has made North American bear, elk and deer populations migrate in search for food, it has also resulted in the migration of the rural Syrian populations to urban centers after a severe water shortage in agricultural regions in 2006. This is often cited as one way that climate change may have contributed to the ongoing civil unrest in Syria.

Under-recognized Climate Refugees

The term “climate refugee” was created to signal the growing number of displaced people due to causes related to global warming. However, Kimberly Curtis notes how this is a misnomer, as the international community does not have any formal recognition for these migrant populations. In fact, New Zealand was the first country to adopt a legal policy regarding the increasing number of migrants coming from the Pacific Island countries which are struggling to survive the increased storms and rising sea level associated with climate change. The problem is so pressing that The World Bank has produced a report entitled “Groundswell: Preparing for internal climate migration” aimed at assisting nations to adapt to the flows of populations.

Just as climate refugees don’t have any official status yet, environmentalists are at a loss of how to protect spaces of in-situ (on-site) conservation areas for biodiversity, as the protected lands themselves are static and unable to migrate with the flows of species populations.

Movement of Epic Proportions

The rising temperatures and increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere have complex and even bizarre consequences for ecosystems around the world. An article in National Geographic by Craig Welch reminds us that “Half of all life is moving” and this includes bacteria and viruses which pose new threats to species. Meanwhile existing species are creating hybrids due to the variance of reproductive encounters that results from plant and animal species migrating at different rates. The massive level of redistribution is difficult to conceptualize. Welch notes, “Scientists have long assumed that species would shift their range as climate conditions shift. They just didn’t expect it would happen so fast.”

Skeptics may assume that these movements are not indeed the result of climate change, per se, but due to other causes such as urbanization or deforestation. However, a report published in March 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that the level of dispersal for species is greater than land-based human-driven causes alone could account for.

A Threat to Biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity looms as a significant consequence of global warming because not all species are resilient enough to “weather” the changes. Climate is not the only factor involved, either. Invasive species and travelling diseases may quash endemic species of a region. A recent study conducted by Kew Science examined what it takes for plants to adapt to a warming planet. Categories such as bark and leaf thickness, plant height, resprouting ability and deeper roots contribute to a plant’s durability. The study analyzes a number of factors such as drought, increasing temperatures, severe weather incidents and a greater frequency of fires, and increasing gases in the soil and atmosphere such as CO2 and Nitrogen.

KewEnvironmentPlants
Source: Kew Science

A Frustrating Dilemma

Climate change is a serious problem that takes a coordinated effort from local and international governments. Too often, it has caused political cowards and fossil fuel cronies run away with their tails between their legs in denial. The lack of response towards addressing this issue, especially in the United States, is appalling. Meanwhile, if we look elsewhere, many countries are stepping up to the challenge. Costa Rica, a haven for ecotourism, has become the first nation to implement plans to ban fossil fuels by 2021. Fossil fuel divestment is another attractive options which has gained international attention for leadership by individual cities like New York City.

What you can do 

Urge your local and national politicians to act by
  • Eliminating fossil fuel dependence,
  • Divesting from fossil fuel industries,
  • Developing and promoting forms of alternative energy,
  • Planting trees and protecting existing forests, and
  • Promoting responsible growth and sustainable resource usage
On an individual scale, you can follow these same principles in your daily life by
  • Avoiding use of gas or fuel for heating, transportation or electricity
  • Boycotting products sold by fossil fuel industries and removing any investments from them in your retirement plan or otherwise
  • Adopting forms of alternative energy for personal use
  • Planting trees, using national parks for recreation, and volunteering in community gardens or other green spaces
  • Reducing your water and electricity consumption, using fresh, local, organic produce and avoiding processed foods or manufactured goods unless they are produced by companies promoting sustainable practices, and
  • Influence those around you to abide by similar principles
Additional sources:
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