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Climate Change and Wildlife

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Climate is long-term data (100+ years) that summarizes the overall weather trends at a particular location. Climate is one of the factors that influences plants and animals (including humans) that live on earth. Species have adapted over time (thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of years) to survive and thrive in their current climate and location. This is a major reason why there is such a diversity of plants and animals on our planet, from polar bears to black bears and cacti to tamarack trees. We do not expect polar bears and black bears to live in the same habitat, or a cactus and a tamarack tree to grow in the same location—they have evolved to thrive in their particular environment.

 

Earth’s climate has changed over time and plants and animals have adapted, evolved, or gone extinct as a result. We can look at proxy data (such as ice cores) and fossils to observe these changes. The big concern about our current changing climate is the rapid rate of the change. Scientific data has shown that this is due to our reliance of fossil fuel products that release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere when burned.

 

Animals and plants are constantly adapting to their changing ecosystems. The rapidly changing levels of such indicators as the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels, however, is leading to much faster and greater ecosystem pressures. The rapid rate of change observed in our climate is already affecting plants and wildlife in New Hampshire. There are already noticeable changes such as increased flooding, extreme fluctuations in precipitation (including rain, snow, and ice events), shifting habitats, and species struggling to adapt. Biologists are keeping a close eye on wildlife as these changes unfold. Some of these species include moose, brook trout, White Mountain fritillary, and North Atlantic right whale. However, predicting what wildlife population numbers and assemblages will be in the future in New Hampshire is difficult.

 

The world is one giant interconnected ecosystem. The food web is a good way to think about this. When one species population increases, others in the web must react to that increase—some taking advantage of it, and others declining if they are prey, for example, or if their food source shrinks. The timing of when plants begin to grow or bloom in the spring will also influence organisms that have a life cycle tied to that timing. For example, robins are increasingly staying in New Hampshire through the winter because of more moderate temperatures and available food. Catastrophic events and rapid ongoing changes, such as stronger storms, flooding, and sea level rise, will influence the physical landscape of New Hampshire. This may change local populations of plants and animals that are not able to adapt or react to such extreme events.

 

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It is important that we observe and understand how these changes are playing out, especially how they will influence our own human species. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is already studying wildlife and habitat relationships and working on actions to help reduce climate change impacts on the plants and animals that call the Granite State home. Climate change over time will affect all the ways we enjoy the natural resources of New Hampshire, such as wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, fall foliage viewing, and other types of nature tourism, and we need to adapt as well.