Climate-driven wildlife movements are creating health risks and economic threats to society, says landmark study

Climate-driven changes to the distribution of species across the world are having increasingly profound implications across human society, according to a landmark study led by the University of Tasmania alongside over 40 international partner institutions including ZSL. 

A northward shift of mangroves in Florida, USA, is expected in response to climate change

Published in the journal Science, the study details how human lifestyles are already being impacted by climate-driven changes in the distribution of land, marine and freshwater species around the world. As their environment changes, many plants and animals are responding by, for example, moving higher altitudes, greater or lower depths in the oceans, or towards the poles.

These mass movements could have far-reaching implications for human society: creating health risks, posing economic threats, and impacting supply chains across commodities from coffee beans to commercial fisheries.  Highlighting the far-reaching impacts these are likely to have, the report’s authors are calling on governments to make species movements a central pillar of their climate change adaptation plans, and this as a matter of urgency. 

Commenting on the study, lead author Professor Gretta Pecl from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) said: “Previous studies have shown that land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17km per decade, and marine species by 72km per decade. Our study demonstrates how these changes are affecting ecosystems, human health and culture in the process.” 

The study cites a wide range of examples to illustrate the growing extent to which climate-driven species movements are already impacting across human society and culture. In agriculture, the world’s principal coffee-growing regions are expected to shift to new territories, whilst less valuable, warmer climate timber species supplant the traditional likes of Norway spruce in commercial forestry plantations. Industries such as tourism are likely to suffer as coral reefs die and jellyfish swarms increasingly infest recreational waters. Meanwhile, in commercial fisheries the movement of species could lead to economic tensions between neighbouring states. 

Rising global temperatures could also create serious new health threats. Malaria will become more prevalent as disease-carrying mosquitoes expand their range towards the poles, into regions with no previous exposure. Indigenous peoples could find their food security and traditional knowledge systems challenged by changing distributions of fish and reindeer. 

Co-author Dr Nathalie Pettorelli from ZSL said: “Climate-driven species redistributions shouldn’t only be a concern for conservation biologists – they should worry everyone. Nations are far from being equally equipped to deal with the consequences of this redistribution of biodiversity, and the world as a whole isn’t adequately prepared to handle the range of issues emerging from species moving across local, national, and international jurisdictional boundaries. The development of effective solutions will require increased international cooperation, combined with the commitment of adequate resources.”

Find out more about ZSL’s work for wildlife threatened by climate change.

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