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Extinctions looming: Many species will be threatened as their habitats are altered by climate change

Climate change could drive to extinction as many as one in six animal and plant species, according to a new analysis. In a study published April 30 in the journal Science, Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, also found that as the planet warms in the future, species will disappear at an accelerating rate.

“We have the choice,” he said. “The world can decide where on that curve they want the future Earth to be.”

As dire as Urban’s conclusions are, other experts said the real toll may turn out to be even worse. The number of extinctions “may well be two to three times higher,” said John J. Wiens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona.

Global warming has raised the planet’s average surface temperature 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution. Species are responding by shifting their ranges.

In 2003, Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas and Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University analyzed studies of more than 1,700 plant and animal species. They found that, on average, their ranges shifted 3.8 miles per decade toward the planet’s poles.

If emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to grow, researchers project the world could warm by as much as 8 degrees Fahrenheit. As the climate continues to change, scientists fear, some species won’t be able to find suitable habitats. The American pika, a hamsterlike mammal that lives on mountains in the West, has been retreating to higher elevations in recent decades. Since the 1990s, some pika populations along the species’ southernmost ranges have vanished.

Hundreds of studies published over the past two decades have yielded a wide range of predictions regarding the number of extinctions that will be caused by global warming. Some have predicted few extinctions while others have predicted that 50 percent of species face oblivion.

There are many reasons for the wide variation. Some scientists looked only at plants in the Amazon while others focused on butterflies in Canada. In some cases, researchers assumed just a couple of degrees of warming while in others they looked at much hotter scenarios. Because scientists rarely were able to say just how quickly a given species might shift ranges, they sometimes produced a range of estimates.

To get a clearer picture, Urban decided to revisit every climate extinction model ever published. He threw out all the studies that examined just a single species, such as the American pika, on the grounds that these might artificially inflate the result of his meta-analysis.

Urban ended up with 131 studies examining plants, amphibians, fish, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates spread out across the planet. He reanalyzed all of the data in those reports. Overall, he found that 7.9 percent of species were predicted to become extinct from climate change. Estimates based on low levels of warming yielded much fewer extinctions than hotter scenarios.

By his calculation, with an increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in surface temperature, 5.2 percent of species would become extinct. At 7.7 degrees, 16 percent would.

Urban found that the rate of extinctions would not increase steadily, but would accelerate if temperatures rose.

Richard Pearson, a biogeographer at University College London, called the new meta-analysis “an important line in the sand that tells us we know enough to see climate change as a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.”

But he said that Urban was likely underestimating the scale of extinctions. The latest generation of climate extinction models are more accurate, Pearson said. Sadly, they also produce more dire estimates.

Wiens also noted that the tropics have been underrepresented in climate extinction studies. In Urban’s meta-analysis, 78 studies focused on species in North America and Europe while only seven came from South America. Yet when Urban combined all of the data from South American studies, he found that 23 percent of species were at risk of extinction. In North America, by contrast, only 5 percent faced extinction.