climate change & White furry animals

I don’t run a car, have never run a car. I could say that this is because I have this extremely tender environmentalist conscience, but the fact is I hate driving.  Sir David Attenborough

Arctic symbol of climate change

Our society seems split in two:

1          Meteorologists, scientists, geographers, biologists and other good people continuing to accumulate evidence of the collapse of polar ice, rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, fading ecosystems.    Indeed the IPCC say “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”  Here you can download the IPCC Sixth Assessment report, written by 284 authors from 66 countries.

2          Then there are the rest of us, myself included, who continue to burn fossil fuels, shop on occasion for non-vital consumer goods and occasionally travel by plane to exotic locations.  The United Nations presents alarming data regarding our unsustainable resource consumption Here we can see in real time our fantastic embarrassing economic progress: Capitalism seems to be contemplating our own planet’s demise; yet how much really?

Fluffy white mammals as symbols of climate change

As a wildlife biologist, I record and forecast the effects of climate change on ecosystems and wildlife. Particularly clear examples of climate change effects are found with white Arctic animals. Findings present a worrying picture which our society must accept and address.

For Arctic and non-Arctic creatures, many reports predict shrinking ranges, animals heading north and to higher elevations until there is nowhere left to go.  Here are some examples:  Hof et al. 2012 Future climate change with favour non-specialist mammals in the sub-arctics which is a great accessible paper providing clear maps of animals heading north. Then there is Leach et al. 2015 Expertly validated models and phylogenetically-controlled analysis suggests responses to climate change are related to species traits in the order lagomorpha which is much more technical, yet the colour maps and graphs clearly show rabbits, hares and pikas moving northwards to higher elevations. Other reports show how some species cannot adapt their phenology fast enough to the requirements of the changing climate.  For example some creatures which seasonally change their coat colour to white in winter, have not adapted to a more snow-free environment.   For example Zimova et al. 2020 Lack of phenological shift leads to increased camouflage mismatch in mountain hares

Global climate change affecting the English mountain hare population

Over the past 3 years I collated not only mountain hare observations submitted by the public to biological record centres (thank you!), yet also environmental data: climate, temperature, rainfall, topography and vegetation.  In R software I used the sophisticated package called biomod2 which collates the environmental data from the mountain hare locations and applies advanced algorithms to predict the extent of the mountain hare distribution.  Among many findings, these models confirmed that mountain hares really love the cold. This is especially true as their pelage consists of hollow hairs which insulates them incredibly well.  Yet average winter temperatures are forecast to rise by more than 2 C over the next 30 years.

Average winter temperatures degrees Celsius for Peak District, England

I wonder how mountain hares will tolerate those warmer winter temperatures. During my winter surveys I always notice some mountain hares desperately clinging to the last snow patches.  They know it gives them camouflage, they know it is colder, they want the snow.

Clinging to its snow patch for dear life

Back at my desk, I applied the current year 2020 and future year 2050 climate values to the computer model. Today mountain hares are presently found widespread across the Peak District because it is cold and wet all over the hills and into the valleys. But in future as temperatures rise there will be few cold wet places left. If mountain hares follow their climate preferences they will retreat to the very hill tops and to a very small range. The consequences are stark.

Mountain hare range in the Peak District as predicted with biomod2. Their range shrinks from 168km2 to about 19km2. The relief map shows, from bottom (south) to top (north) their remaining areas will be Kinder Scout, a bit of Bleaklow and a tiny patch near Rishworth.

Please follow this link to read more from this research.  

Bedson, CPE, Devenish, C., Symeonakis, E., Mallon, D., Reid, N., Harris, W.E. & Preziosi, R.  (2021). Splitting hares: Current and future ecological niches predicted as distinctly different for two congeneric lagomorphs.  Acta Oecologica.

Here is the video link where I talk about climate change and mountain hares on Sky News. Climate change: England’s mountain hares under threat Many folk did not like this news item: they are climate change deniers and we have to help them.