The Multifaceted Impacts of Climate Change on Ecosystems and Human Health
Accelerated Climate Change and its Far-reaching Impacts
As usual, the climate is defined as the typical weather of a particular place in a period of time. It means that a place can have various types of climates in different seasons. It also means that climates in different regions can be so diverse. Scientists normally analyze some patterns of past climates in order to predict how the climates will change in the coming years. However, these statistics are less reliable because the earth’s climates in recent years are changing more rapidly than what scientists expected. Human exploitation is claimed to be one of the primary causes of climate change. The changes in climate have significant impacts on not only a wide range of birds, plants, and fishes but also human health.
In general, the changes in the climate system can be made by natural causes and human activities. For example, if there are changes in the shapes of the earth’s orbit, the position of the earth’s axis, and even within the sun itself, the sun’s energy output will change. Because the sun is one of the crucial sources of energy in human life, the intensity of the sunlight will drive the climate system. The climate will be warmer in strong solar intensity periods and cooler in weak solar intensity periods. In addition, volcanic eruptions also affect the climate system. When volcanoes erupt, the large ash clouds, which are produced into the air, can dim the sun and cause a cooling effect.
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Besides ash clouds, enormous quantities of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which relate to acid rains, are also created. However, studies indicated that the dominant causes of climate change are human activities, especially the greenhouse effect. The term “greenhouse effect” is commonly used to describe the process of making the earth’s temperature warmer. After sunlight passes through the atmosphere and reaches the earth’s surface, nearly 30 percent of it is reflected back into space. The remaining energy is absorbed and re-emitted in all directions by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4). In other words, the greenhouse gases can be considered as a blanket around the earth, which makes the earth’s atmosphere warm.
Nonetheless, human activities are adding CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere through the process of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, cement production, waste dumps, and deforestation. As a result, increased levels of greenhouse gases intensified the average temperature above the normal degree. According to Blunden, “2015 tied as the warmest year on record for the region, and sea ice reached its fourth lowest extent” (2016). Warming temperatures not only make the Arctic sea ice melt faster but also cause more extreme weather events, including fires, droughts, great storms, heavy rainfalls, and floods. These changes can significantly affect many animals live as well as human health.
Ecological Disruptions and Forest Vulnerabilities
Longer-term changes to weather patterns from season to season are impacting many different species of birds around the world by altering their food web, habitats, the timing of breeding, and migration cycles. Silberg wrote that “Heat waves would last around a third longer, rain storms would be about a third more intense, the increase in sea level would be approximately that much higher” (2016). Those phenomena will disrupt the nutrient cycling of the ecosystem. Therefore, it will decrease the range of prey for birds. Insufficient food may cause a steady decrease in bird populations as well as give the birds less energy for migration. In addition, not only are birds in danger of immediate death, but their eggs are harmed by major cyclones, storms, and heavy rainfalls, which can seriously damage their habitats.
Climate change also has great impacts on birds’ breeding cycles. Research has shown that while the murres breed twenty-four days earlier after ten years, the eggs of swallows lay nine days earlier compared to forty years ago. Moreover, changes in climate, such as higher temperatures, force birds to use more energy for thermoregulation. Some types of birds, which cannot adapt to extreme weather conditions, have to shift their geographic distributions northwards to areas with more suitable thermal conditions. Besides terrestrial birds, climate change also affects waterfowl. For instance, the prairie pothole region is one of the breeding areas of waterfowl in North America. However, climate change significantly declined the prairie pothole wetlands.
As the climate is changing, many forests are being destroyed through fires, insect infestations, and drought. Compared to the past, the number and intensity of wildfires today are to a higher degree due to global warming. Scientists showed that the forest areas that were burnt by large wildfires these days are more than twice as many as fifty years ago. When the temperature steadily increases, it will make the spring run off quickly as well as build up the summer heat. It also enhances the evaporation rates. In addition, extreme weather events such as thunderstorms increase the frequency of lightning, which is one of the primary causes of wildfires.
As a result, the forests have to face drier conditions together with longer fire seasons. Statistics indicated that the wildfire season is seventy-eight days longer. In addition, higher temperatures and drier conditions are the ideal environment for the mountain pine beetle and other types of insects, which can kill many trees. On the other hand, the warmer the air is, the more heavy rainfall events occur. It led to more devastating floods, which destroyed many forests in recent decades.
Shifting Aquatic Ecosystems and Marine Life Challenges
Climate change affects not only the forests through major wildfires and devastating floods but also the agriculture plants through droughts. Warmer temperatures will intensify the evaporation of the soil. It makes the droughts in some regions occur more frequently and longer. Droughts can threaten many crops, including corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat. For example, Silberg indicated that “above certain temperature thresholds, corn doesn’t die, but it doesn’t grow seed. It doesn’t grow a corncob” (2016). In general, humans should have plans to protect trees from the negative effects of climate change.
The changing climate strongly influenced fish’s lives in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly. For example, climate change is one of the major reasons that changed the home range of many marine species. When the air temperatures increase, the oceans may absorb some heat and become warmer. Blunden stated that “Average surface temperatures in ice-free regions in August 2015 were up to 14 degrees F above average in several regions” (2016). Different species of fish can withstand different water temperatures. However, there are limited types of fish that are well adapted to high water temperatures.
Other fishes, especially cold water species, including trout and salmon, cannot rapidly adapt. As a result, they have to shift their location by moving further north or into deeper water as a response to the rise in global temperatures. It means that these species may move into the less hospitable habitat and have to compete with other species. In addition, thousands of juvenile marine species may be stranded and unable to travel to the new environment. This movement also directly impacts the diets or the food web of many marine organisms. For instance, elephant seal pups become thinner because of a decline in the size of their prey.
Another example is “the higher rainfall stressed important food plants by waterlogging their roots, resulting in lowered nutrient content for beavers during the reproductive period” (Ribic, 2017). Furthermore, climate change affects not only the migration timing of many species but also some key stages in their annual life cycle, including their breeding season. Many types of fish are found to be breeding earlier than they used to. For example, compared to fifteen years ago, the eggs of loggerhead sea turtles are laid about ten days earlier. Moreover, climate change also contributes to species extinction.
Human Health Risks and Disease Outbreaks
The climate-sensitive species, which may experience significant losses, include ringed seals and cold water fishes like salmon. For example, the populations of western trout in the western United States decreased more than sixty percent in recent years. Another effect of climate change on marine species is that rising temperatures can control their sex ratio. Scientists showed that the number of female hawksbill turtles being born is more than that of male turtles. In other words, higher temperatures will contribute to the feminization of marine species.
Health hazards related to climate change are significant and varied. The first significant health impact of climate change is the increased intensity of infectious disease transmission. One example of an infectious disease is Lyme disease. This disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, or fleas and can cause fever, fatigue, joint pain, and skin rash. As temperature and rainfall increase, the distribution and behavior of mosquitoes and ticks are greatly influenced. As a result, Lyme disease spreads rapidly. In recent years, nearly 30,000 cases of Lyme disease have been reported every year.
Moreover, an analysis of dengue transmission in the southeastern United States written by Butterworth and other professors showed that there are nearly four hundred million infections by the four dengue serotypes (Butterworth 579). Another health impact of climate change is death related to extreme weather events. To be specific, floods, intense hurricanes, droughts, tsunamis, and storms killed a large number of people. For example, in 2004, the Asian tsunami killed over 280,000 people. People who have survived experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental health issues.
Environmental Shifts and Human Health Implications
On the other hand, higher temperatures are directly related to poor air quality. In other words, when the climate changes, toxic air pollutants are released in some areas. Thus, they suffer susceptible populations like people with asthma or cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States, children, and the elderly. Because of greenhouse effects, the increased ground-level ozone may cause various reactions, including chest pains, throat irritation, and inflammation of the lungs.
In addition, the allergen of pollen due to increased plant growth and mold spores due to severe storms are amplified. In other words, Schmidt said, “When exposed to warmer temperatures and higher levels of CO2, plants grow more vigorously and produce more pollen than they otherwise would.” (A71). If the climate continues to change, the threats to human health will be higher.
In conclusion, climate change causes higher temperatures and other extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, wildfires, and heavy rainfalls. These phenomena have negative effects on not only many different species of birds, fishes, and plants but also human health. Therefore, by analyzing past weather patterns, people should prepare well for forthcoming events as well as have projects to preserve the forests and protect animals from the risks of extinction.
- Blunden, J., Arndt, D. S., & Hartfield, G. (2016). State of the Climate in 2015. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 97(8), S1-S275.
- Silberg, J. J. (2016). Climate Change Impacts on Birds and Their Migration Phenology. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 128(1), 1-11.
- Ribic, C. A. (2017). Avian community responses to variability in climate and resource availability: Studies from a system with long-term data. Ecosphere, 8(2), e01632.
- Butterworth, M. K., Morin, C. W., & Comrie, A. C. (2017). An Analysis of Dengue Transmission in the Southeastern United States. Journal of Medical Entomology, 54(3), 579-584.
- Schmidt, C. W. (2016). Pollen Overload: Seasonal Allergies in a Changing Climate. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(4), A70-A75.