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SAMS scientist adds voice to 'twin crises' warning

Prof Michael Burrows is part of an international group of scientists calling on a new strategy to tackle the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
Prof Michael Burrows is part of an international group of scientists calling on a new strategy to tackle the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

A SAMS scientist has co-authored a report in the influential journal Science, which calls on governments around the world to reconsider strategies to tackle the climate crisis and on-going biodiversity loss.

An unprecedented and continuing loss of biodiversity has been sparked by human induced climate change, together with the intensive use and destruction of natural ecosystems, says Prof Michael Burrows, who published the report ‘Overcoming the coupled climate and biodiversity crises and their societal impacts’, alongside 17 other environmental scientists from around the world.

The study estimates that human activities have altered roughly 75 percent of the land surface and 66 percent of the marine waters on our planet. As a result, today approximately 80 percent of the biomass from mammals and 50 percent of plant biomass have been lost, while more species are in danger of extinction than at any time in human history.

Meanwhile, global warming and the destruction of natural habitats not only lead to biodiversity loss, but also reduce the capacity of organisms, soils and sediments to store carbon, which in turn exacerbates the climate crisis.

Prof Burrows, who last week was named on the Reuters Hot List of the world’s most influential climate scientists, contributed research on marine species redistribution caused by climate change. He particularly looked at temperature limits to assess how types of marine creatures might fare in the future.

He said: “Climate related changes in biodiversity will impact the ecosystems that humans rely upon for our continued existence: forestry, fishing, coastal protection, atmospheric gas concentrations are a few examples. But we have also destroyed habitats, making it more difficult for the planet to cope with these changes.

“What we are dealing with is twin crises, because greenhouse gases are causing warming and climate change. Additionally, our use of the land and the ocean have caused a dramatic decline in biodiversity. We investigated what would be required to cope with these twin crises over the coming century.”

Prof Burrows’ work has shown a dramatic shift of biodiversity from regions around the equator towards the poles, as marine life adapts or dies as the average ocean temperature rises.

“From an ocean perspective, humans haven’t hugely altered the marine environment, when compared with our influence on the terrestrial landscape,” said Prof Burrows. “This intervention by humans on land makes redistribution more difficult for terrestrial species. Meanwhile, the more fluid and open ocean environment, where there is less habitat destruction, allows for greater connectivity and quicker range shifts as species adapt to a warming ocean.

“For example, it is far easier to imagine cod moving from the North Sea to the Arctic regions than it is to consider elephants moving to Europe!”

To address these multiple crises, the researchers propose a combination of emissions reduction, restoration and protection measures and intelligent land-use management.

This includes the protection of coastlines by maintaining coral reefs and wetlands; the restoration of at least 30 percent of land, freshwater and marine zones to prevent further biodiversity losses; and the connection of protected areas via migration corridors, hence creating a web of safe habitats around the world for animals.

However, for any measures to be successful, the report authors insist that joint strategies and regular exchange between institutions and world leaders is required.