ScienceSkepticism

Run to the Hills, Run for Your Life

One of my most memorable trips was an adventure excursion to Costa Rica some years ago. In addition to the adventure, the beautiful landscapes, the ocean, and the active volcanoes, I was impressed with the amount of life the country boasts in relation to its size. Costa Rica constitutes only about 0.1% of the world’s landmass, but it is home to a full 5% of the world’s species.

That’s the rain forest for you. It’s teeming with life.

Unfortunately, climate change may be having an adverse effect on that life as we speak.

Now, of course, we’ve all heard that the most significant harm from climate change so far has been in the polar regions. Melting ice and depletion of food sources at the poles are stories that have regularly been in the news. But it seems tropical plants and animals may face an even greater threat.

Scientists, led by Robert K. Colwell of the University of Connecticut, say some tropical species are living near their maximum temperatures already, and warmer conditions could cause them to decline.

Colwell and his team studied conditions in Costa Rica, and found that, where many species with range problems caused by climate change can shift range locations relatively easily, thereby countering the effects of warming in their natural habitats, tropical species face a more daunting prospect, because regions that can support them are too far away for them to make a shift. They simply cannot get to where they can survive.

Publishing their findings in an article (free abstract only) in last Friday’s edition of the journal Science, the team believes some tropical species affected by climate change will instead move to higher ground where temperatures are cooler. They cannot move north or south to a suitable climate, so they are forced to move up, into the surrounding hills and mountains.

Of course those species that already live in the hills and mountains have no place to go, and the influx of lowland species could have an adverse effect on them as well. That is if rising temperatures don’t cause them to die off first.

Jens-Christian Svenning of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and Richard Condit of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who were not part of the research team, agree that “[the] numbers suggest large risks.” But they point out that Colwell’s findings are likely to be controversial, because there are still large gaps in the knowledge of species’ sensitivity to climate change.

Meanwhile, a separate paper in the same journal reports that warming climate has already scrambled the ranges of small mammals in Yosemite National Park.

At any rate, this particular effect of climate change is very possibly transpiring right now, and shines an ever brighter light on what we stand to lose if we don’t take action. The government of Costa Rica at least appears aware of the problem and seems willing to do its part. In 2007, it stated that it wants to be the first country to become carbon neutral by 2021.

We’ll see if they can do it, and if others will follow.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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16 Comments

  1. By traveling to Costa Rica you are, of course, part of the problem. Riding in jets, or most forms of long-distance travel for that matter, are one of the most carbon intensive activities we humans engage in. To me “ecotourism” is an oxymoron.

  2. My friend thinks that only 5% of the land surface of the planet should be urban. 45% should be modified nature, farms, forests etc. for harvesting and the rest should be untouched. When I ask him how many people will the planet hold using his configuration, he says we have gone past that already. So how could that be turned around? (No answer)

  3. @Hanes:

    I agree with you, but I should note that it appears Costa Rica is simply where the issue has been observed in this case. If the data are correct, the lack of habitible ranges for species to shift to could be a problem in many tropical areas.

  4. @Sam Ogden: I caught the reference too, but I just naturally assumed that everyone loves Iron Maiden. \\m//

    Costa Rica is a unique country, it’s been relatively stable for the last 50 years and has no military. That makes me wonder what they’re doing differently compared to their neighbors. Perhaps the Costa Ricans just got lucky? I hope they are successful at becoming carbon neutral, but I’m afraid that the U.S.A can more than offset the carbon loss with one hand tied behind the nation’s back.

  5. @Imrryr:

    You’re right about that.

    But another thing that really impressed me about Costa Rica was its literacy rate. I don’t remember the numbers, but I seem to recall it was among the highest, if not the highest in the world. Not a direct correlation to intelligence of course, but at least the people there are informed. Maybe that’s got something to do with their stability and will play a part in any success they might have becoming carbon neutral.

  6. Agreed. Literacy is essential for stability in a democratic nation, although it obviously doesn’t guarantee it. And literacy figures don’t always give you an idea of the quality of that literacy. Just look at the United States for evidence of that.

    But anyway, one of the many benefits of high literacy is that it encourages foreign investment and the development of high-tech industries. Intel, for example, has a processor manufacturing plant in Costa Rica. Science and technology will be essential for the nation’s efforts to become carbon neutral and to remain competitive in the future. So it’s encouraging to see a country that’s headed in the right direction for it’s citizens while at the same time maintaining a strong desire to protect it’s natural environment.

  7. It’s probably easier for a small country to become carbon neutral than a large one, assuming that the technological base necessary is available to them. But wouldn’t it be a slap in the face if Costa Rica pulled it off, and brought other countries with them? I’m sure that whatever administration is in power in America in the 2020’s would find some way not to notice.

    So, everyone likes Sam’s Iron Maiden reference but not my Jurassic Park…hmph. I guess now I know on which side the raptor is buttered.

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