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Tuesday, 01 November 2005
How Global Warming is Killing our Wildlife; More than One Million Species Will be Wiped out in the Next 50 Years


The Mirror (London, England)

By Ruki Sayid

To us, the changes are imperceptible. The slight shifts of our seasons that barely warrant comment beyond a casual remark that spring seems to be springing earlier these days.

But to British wildlife, the reality of climate change is dramatic - and in many cases devastating.

It is estimated that more than a million species around the world will be wiped out in the next 50 years, and Sir David King, the government's chief scientific officer, has warned that climate change is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism.

With temperatures up by 0.6C on the last century, entire species once common in the UK - household names such as the sparrowhawk - are already disappearing as their environments are turned upside-down by small shifts in our climate.

The impact on the UK could be catastrophic as our wildlife struggles to cope. The simple action of a new leaf unfurling in early April instead of mid-April is far-reaching enough to signal the demise of the blue tit.

Scientists from Oxford University have revealed that oak trees coming into leaf two weeks earlier than 40 years ago mean that larvae are hatching into caterpillars too quickly for blue tits to feed on.

"This means the whole vulnerable balance of nature is in danger of being tipped over," says Dr Ben Sheldon of Oxford University's Zoology department.

The early arrival of caterpillars leaves the blue tits struggling to produce their young quickly enough to capitalize on the food supply - and if the chicks are late, they will starve.

Dr Sheldon, head of the university's Edward Gray Institute adds: "Sparrowhawks in turn feed on the chicks, so pressure is on them as well to breed earlier so their reproductive cycle fits into the chain of events."

But while invertebrates such as the caterpillar can adapt to climate change relatively quickly, birds' breeding cycles take far longer to evolve.

The British Trust for Ornithology has placed the blue tit on its danger list.

Dr Tim Sparks of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology paints a bleak future for plants and animals which cannot adapt to warmer winters and wetter summers.

He says: "Those which are able to adapt by going north will survive. Those that can't will die out. Birds and butterflies stand a chance of survival by flying north. Plants will find it much harder, and a lot will depend on how far their seeds can be carried. Species in the north will have nowhere to turn to."

Rare plants such as the Snowdon lily are under threat, along with Scottish mountain birds including the ptarmigan, dotterel and snow bunting. Dr Sheldon says: "The ptarmigan has evolved to survive in fairly harsh conditions and is camouflaged white in winter so it blends into the snowy background.

"As temperatures rise, its living space gets smaller and the plumage nature has provided becomes useless as it stands out like a sore thumb against a dark background, making it easy prey for eagles."

Waders such as the redshank are already in decline, and the RSPB believes they will be hard hit as the marshes and wet meadows they thrive in dry out and the ground becomes too hard for them to dig for food.

Southern England will become home to more exotic birds. The hoopoe is already a frequent visitor.

Badgers could be wiped out as dry ground reduces the number of earthworms.

The French bumblebee has already made its home here and wasps, aphids and the rat populations are expected to explode because of hotter summers forecast over the next five decades.

Environmentalists say temperatures could soar by another 3C by 2050 and 5.8C by 3000.

British marine life, too, is expected to undergo dramatic changes, with our already vanishing cod heading for cooler water and being replaced by tuna, turtles and seahorses.

Dr. David Sims, of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, says sea temperatures are higher than any time in the last century.

Last year there were several sightings of Great White sharks and shoals of deadly Portuguese man o' war jellyfish in Devon and Cornwall. And a giant jellyfish dubbed the Blob terrified bathers at Weymouth, Dorset.

Our warmer climate has boosted the breeding of a potentially deadly scorpion in Kent.

The 5cm-long European yellow-tailed scorpion lurks in crevices in walls and rocks, and its sting can be fatal to the elderly and very young.

A 10,000-strong colony has settled in brickwork around Sheerness docks in Kent, and others have been found in Harwich, Pinner and Ongar Underground station.

Even mosquitoes are making balmy Britain their new home.

Dr Sparks warns: "Global warming brings many health issues with it - higher rates of skin cancer, more cataracts because of the increased sunlight, the risk of malaria and even more cases of food poisoning."

But man is really to blame for all this, says Martin Baxter, technical director of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.

He says: "It's human interference which is causing the problem. The build-up of greenhouse gases through our high dependence on fossil fuel is storing up huge problems for the future.

"We need to find alternatives like hydrogen technology or wind farms or face huge repercussions in the future."

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 November 2005 )
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