A hailstorm in South Texas. Tornadoes in Tennessee Wildfires in the West. A torrent of Gulf Coast hurricanes. Those are just a few of the many. record 22 weather and climate disastersEach one of these damages exceeded $1 billion in the United States last year.
In all, the price tag for 2020 hit a whopping $95 billion — and that’s just in the United States. Reinsurance firm Swiss Re put global economic lossesLast year, $175 billion was spent, with $32 billion in addition. floods in ChinaAnd $13 billion in damagesCyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh
The worst news? Our profligate burning of fossil fuels means we’re in store for more.
Studies have shown that climate change is increasing the severity and duration of some weather events. heat waves. stronger hurricanesAnonymous increased wildfire riskA longer wildfire season. We can also anticipate more heavy rain eventsAnd severe droughts, not to mention other extreme events like February’s polar vortex.
“You can’t attribute any particular storm to climate change, but what we do know is that climate change tips the odds of making many of these events more severe,” says Bruce Stein, chief scientist and associate vice president at the National Wildlife Federation.
While experts tabulate the economic losses — homes destroyed, crops ruined, businesses shuttered — ecosystems and wildlife can also sustain damage that’s harder to quantify.
Many plants and wildlife evolved with and have adapted to dealing with large-scale disturbances, but we’re beginning to see “megadisturbances” at levels beyond what we saw in the past, says Stein.
That can cause serious damage. Extreme weather can kill animals directly — or indirectly, like by destroying food sources, contaminating water or altering habitat, forcing a species to move into areas where there may be more competition, fewer resources or a greater risk of predation.
“What we begin to find when you get some of these mega disturbances is that it’s beyond the ability of a species — or their adaptive capacity — to bounce back,” says Stein.
There are two ways that climate change is affecting the natural world. One is more gradual, referred to by scientists as “ramping” — shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels. The second is fast, and is often referred to as extreme weather events.
Both are problematic, says Sean Maxwell, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science. But, he adds, “I think the changes to acute events have the greatest potential to devastate local populations or ecosystems, and the impacts of these events are often more difficult to plan for or avoid.”
Maxwell was the main author of a 2018 studyPublished in the journal Diversity and DistributionsThis study examined how climate change and extreme weather events affect wildlife. The researchers looked at 519 studies of ecological responses to extreme events — including cyclones, droughts, floods, and heat and cold waves — that took place from 1941 to 2015. The response to extreme events was negative 57% of all the time, according to the researchers. (And, in those cases where species did benefit, they were mainly invasive species.
“Some of the negative responses we found were quite concerning, including more than 100 cases of dramatic population declines and 31 cases of local population extinction following an extreme event,” says Maxwell. “Populations of critically endangered bird species in Hawai’i, such as the palia, have been annihilated due to drought, and populations of lizard species have been wiped out due to cyclones in the Bahamas.”
Researchers found that plants had the highest negative reactions to extreme events, followed closely by reptiles, amphibians, and amphibians.
“Collectively, the studies in our review suggest that extreme weather and climate events have profound implications for species and ecosystem management,” the researchers concluded.
Species that are endangered or threatened are also at risk.
The Attwater prairie bird is an example. These birds once roamed the prairies in Texas and Louisiana.
Today, there are less than 100 remaining wild birds. Scientists have attempted to increase their numbers by creating captive breeding programs. But when Hurricane Harvey walloped Texas with 130-mile-per-hour winds and record rainfall in 2017, the birds were right in harm’s way.
“The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge tracked 29 individual birds, mostly hens. Post-hurricane, staff confirmed only five of them still alive,” Texas Climate News reported. “The hurricane also killed roughly 80% of a prairie chicken population on private property in Goliad County.”
Other species with restricted ranges, such as those found on islands, are also under threat.
“If a species is well distributed, then if one part of its range gets hit, there’s the ability for it to recover,” says Stein. “But if essentially all its eggs are in one basket, and that particular place gets hit by one of these big disturbances, that’s when you have a real concern.”
In 2017 Hurricane Maria cut the population of just 200 Puerto Rican parrots in half. Hurricane Matthew is believed to be responsible for the destruction of the last Bahama nuthatches one year earlier (Sitta insularis. It took two years before a few of the birds were found — and then Hurricane Dorian struck in 2019, making their survival unlikely, according to Diana Bell, a professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia.
“In fact, Dorian may have not only sealed the fate of the nuthatch but also severely impacted other birds endemic to these islands, particularly the Bahama warbler and the Abaco parrot,” Bell wroteAn essay The Conversation. “Also known as the Bahama Amazon parrot, this subspecies uniquely nests in limestone cavities on the ground which are likely to have been flooded by the storm surge.”
The increasing impacts of climate change can increase the risk to wildlife from severe storms.
“If you have increasingly severe hurricanes where you’ve also got sea-level rise essentially providing a higher lodge point for the storm surge, then you start seeing impacts beyond the historical record,” says Stein.
Extreme weather can also be an additional threat to species that already face other environmental pressures such as habitat loss and invasive species, or pollution.
Last year the world watched in horror as land-use management, climate change and drought helped push Australia’s bushfires to a terrifying new level, killing 34 people and burning 37,500 square miles.
A studyPublished in Nature Ecology and EvolutionIt was found that the fire affected the critical habitat of 832 species of native plants, with 70 species losing more then 30% of their natural range. Twenty-one species were already in danger of extinction.
Those who survived could be hard hit in future climate catastrophes. “Multiple extreme events are likely to act in synergistic ways to exacerbate risk of species’ extinction,” wrote Maxwell and the other researchers of the 2018 study.
Australia already has one of the highest extinction rates, and the wildfires could limit the capacity of some species to recover — like the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart and the long-footed potoroo — and threaten others. Australia’s record blazes last year could push the number of endangered species in the country up by 19%, the study in Nature Ecology and Evolution Found.
2017 Hurricane Irma devastated the Florida Keys, destroying more than 1,000 homes, and dumping a trail of debris.
It also endangered one of the region’s beloved endemic species, the tiny Key deer, which today primarily live on Big Pine Key. Some deer were lost in the storm, and survivors faced threats to freshwater supplies as the storm surge poured saline ocean water into freshwater lakes.
Island residents responded the way folks often do after a disaster — they offered help to their neighbors.
“What you saw during and shortly after Irma is that these Key deer were coming up to houses looking for fresh water,” says Stein. “And people were putting out kiddie pools of water for them.”
Following Australia’s bushfires last year, the country’s government jumped to the aid of wildlife by dropping 4,000 pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes to starving brush-tailed rock-wallabies who lost their food source in the blazes.
“There’s a lot of things that we can do to help human communities as well as wildlife after these acute disturbances,” says Stein.
But beyond immediate food and water relief, there’s a much bigger task ahead: reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the ongoing dangers of climate change and the ability of ecosystems to adapt. Key deer, for instance, face a long-term risk to their drinking waters from rising seas. This is something that no number of kiddie pool can fix. More severe hurricanes are possible in their future.
“As climate change continues to ensure extreme climate and weather events are more and more common, we now need to act to ensure species have the best chance to survive,” says Maxwell. “Wherever possible, high-quality and intact habitat areas should be retained, as these are the places where species are most resilient to increasing exposure to extreme events.”
If such intact habitat doesn’t exist, ecological restoration efforts can be used to help species adapt, his study found.
The more we know, our knowledge will improve.
“Incorporating extreme events into climate change vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans will be challenging,” the researchers of the 2018 paper concluded. “But by doing so we have a greater chance of arriving at conservation interventions that truly address the full range of climate change impacts.”
This could allow more species to fight against climate change.
Is deputy editor The RevelatorShe has been a digital editor and an environmental journalist for over a decade. Her focus is on the intersections between energy, water, and climate. Her work was published by The Nation. American Prospect. High Country News. Grist. Pacific StandardAmong others. She is the editor for two books about the global crisis of water.