Although the global havoc wreaked by the coronavirus appeared to take precedence over all else in 2020, the issue of climate change didn’t just disappear, even if it did take a backseat.
Despite a dip in greenhouse gas emissions due to the pandemic, the Earth is still on course to warm up by more than 3 C by the end of the century, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s recent annual assessment of emissions levels.
While that may not seem like a lot, consider that the planet has already experienced more frequent draughts, wildfires, and extreme storms since warming a little more than 1 C since pre-industrial times.
This volatile weather and warming temperatures put the habitats and lifestyles of many species, particularly those in Canada’s North, in a vulnerable position.
Emily Giles, a senior species specialist for World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF), explained that there are direct and indirect impacts of climate change on certain species.
“An example is, say, something like the southern resident killer whales, which are the orcas on the West Coast, they’re impacted because they only eat Chinook salmon and salmon are heavily impacted by climate change. So then, therefore, so are the killer whales,” she told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Dec. 2.
In an effort to draw attention to some of the species in Canada that are already feeling the effects of climate change or that are expected to in the future, CTVNews.ca consulted the WWF and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which annually classifies wildlife species at risk of extinction.
Arne Mooers, a biodiversity professor at Simon Fraser University and COSEWIC member, explained why it’s important to pay attention to the species on this list and what happens to them.
“These guys are canaries in the coal mine,” he warned. “We should worry about them, but they’re telling us that we should be worried about us.”
VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT
As Canada’s most endangered mammal, the Vancouver Island marmot was an obvious candidate for the list, according to COSEWIC.
The Vancouver Island Marmot is a rodent endemic to Vancouver Island, meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth.
According to estimates, there are only approximately 200 Vancouver Island Marmots left with many of them raised in captivity before being released into the wild. They live in colonies in the mountains on the island, but wolves, cougars and a loss of habitat have caused their numbers to dwindle over the years.
Climate change has resulted in the growth of coniferous trees up the slopes of the mountains the marmots live on, which has caused their habitats to shrink, because too many trees can restrict the rodent’s ability to see predators approaching and changes their food sources. They also require enough snow to burrow in when they hibernate over the winter months, which may be more difficult with warmer temperatures.
According to a 2019 COSEWIC assessment and status report, “under a ‘worst-case’ scenario, up to 97 per cent of the suitable marmot habitat on Vancouver Island may disappear by 2080” as a result of climate change.
Two populations of Arctic caribou found in the Canadian Far North, the Peary caribou and the Dolphin and Union herd, are vulnerable to the warming effects of climate change due to their dependence on sea ice for migration.
Emily Giles from WWF said these caribou are known for their “epic” long-distance migrations. The Peary herd, found in the high Arctic Archipelago and Ellesmere Island, depend on the sea ice to travel in search of limited forage between the high Arctic islands.
The Dolphin and Union herd cross between Victoria Island, where they give birth and rear their young, and their wintering habitat on mainland Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
“The absence of sea ice, we’re not there yet, but the absence of sea ice would be disastrous for those groups and completely disrupt their migration,” she explained.
Giles added that, more generally, the disappearance of sea ice has cleared the way for more industrial development, which has been detrimental to the Arctic species living there that are sensitive to this kind of disturbance.
“They’ve evolved over thousands of years to live with ice and so as it changes, they’re not able to adapt quickly enough to the changes that we’re seeing in the Arctic,” she said.
While several species of Pacific salmon are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Giles wanted to highlight the Chinook salmon in particular.
They live in the colder upper reaches of the Pacific Ocean and breed in freshwater rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest. The Chinook salmon are vital because they enrich terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems with essential marine-based nutrients when they complete their lifecycle. They’re also an important food source for species such as the Steller sea lion and the southern resident killer whale.
“It’s the only kind of salmon that the southern resident killer whale will eat,” Giles said.
According to the WWF, warming water temperatures are greatly impacting the salmon’s ability to migrate to certain areas for spawning and for food.
“They’re right now considered to be living at the upper range of their heat tolerance so even just a shift of one or two degrees and water temperature can have a big impact for them,” she said. “The fish might not migrate from one area to another if the water’s too warm in a certain spot.”
The collared pika, an adorable rabbit-like herbivore that is approximately the weight of a baseball, was mentioned by both the WWF and COSEWIC as a species of special concern due to climate change.
Residing in the rocky mountainous areas of northern British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska, the collared pika is vulnerable because it’s not as adaptable as other species if its habitat changes or is lost.
“Already some populations of collared pika have been extirpated from parts of their historic range, after changes in moisture and weather caused by climate change made conditions inhabitable,” according to the WWF.
Warmer winters resulting in less mountain-top snow, which the pikas use as insulation for their nests, have also put them in danger because they’re left exposed to extreme temperatures.
SPINY SOFTSHELL TURTLE
Giles wanted to include the Spiny Softshell turtle, which is the only type of turtle with a soft shell in Canada, to the list of species threatened by climate change because she suspects many Canadians aren’t aware of it.
“It’s a very unique, bizarre-looking turtle,” she said. “It’s got this pointy snout and this, it kind of looks like a pancake, this flat shell that’s soft.”
The turtle lives in rivers and lakes in Ontario and Quebec, but its habitat has been affected by higher temperatures, droughts, and flooding from extreme weather resulting from climate change.
“We’re just getting a lot of that extreme weather and that is thought to be impacting the turtles as they nest on the banks of rivers,” Giles said. “It’s quite in trouble. It’s considered endangered, which is the last level it can be before it goes extinct.”
The narwhal, or as Giles called it “the unicorn of the sea” thanks to its distinct spiralled tusk, is particularly sensitive to the effects of melting ice in the Arctic. That’s because the whale uses the ice to feed and protect itself from potential predators.
“The shrinking Arctic ice is actually opening up new ways for orca whales to come north. Orcas are a new predator for narwhal, they’ve never come into contact with them before so the orcas are taking advantage of this, they’re very smart, and they’re actually able to hunt narwhal.”
According to the WWF, narwhals are moving closer to shorelines where food is scarce because of this new presence of killer whales.
What’s more, Giles said studies have shown that narwhals are the most vulnerable of all Arctic marine mammals to the threats posed by climate change.
The little shorebird known as the piping plover is an endangered species that has felt the effects of climate change on its favoured habitat – sunny, sandy beaches.
Found in the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, the small bird nests on wide sandy beaches with little vegetation.
“It’s a beautiful little bird, very, very cute, and it just happens to like the same kind of beaches that we love as humans,” Giles said.
According to COSEWIC, an increase in severe storms and rising sea levels from climate change have reduced the amount of available habitat for the birds’ coastal breeding and wintering grounds. In the Prairies, drier conditions and severe storms have threatened the piping plovers’ habitat.
Despite some recent successes in conservation efforts, Giles said the piping plover has a limited distribution in Canada and remains endangered.
Warming temperatures and shrinking sea ice has put Atlantic walruses, which are found in the high Arctic and central-low Arctic, in danger.
When the large flippered marine mammal isn’t in the ocean, they live in small groups on sea ice, which are called haul-outs. If there is less sea ice for them to live on, the walruses are forced to haul out on land where the food availability is limited.
They’re also more likely to gather in larger groups on land where they’re at risk of stampedes, such as the heartbreaking one presented in Netflix’s docuseries “Our Planet.” “With all of these walruses congregating in these haul-outs, when there’s a distant boat or aircraft passing by them, they can actually become disoriented and panic and cause stampedes,” Giles explained.
Giles added that the warming Arctic has also resulted in an increase in industrial development, such as shipping and oil and gas exploration, which disturbs the walruses’ habitat.
“With ice opening and new routes opening up for ships and oil tankers, resulting in noise pollution, and this encroachment is really expected to be to be detrimental for their breeding and feeding,” she said.
BERINGIAN PLANTS – HAIRY BRAYA MUSTARD
According to COSEWIC, there are a couple of northern plant species that are part of the ancient Beringia ecosystem, which wasn’t covered by ice during the last ice age, that are currently threatened by climate change.
One of those plants, the hairy braya, which is a rare perennial flowering plant in the mustard family, is only found on one peninsula in the Northwest Territories and nowhere else in the world.
With rising temperatures, the permafrost the plant lives on is melting away beneath it, putting it at risk.
According to COSEWIC, the hairy braya is listed as endangered due to a loss of habitat from permafrost melting, rapid coastal erosion, and salt spray from storm surges.
“These events appear to be increasing in frequency and severity as a consequence of a significant reduction in sea ice cover on the Beaufort Sea and changes in weather patterns,” according to COSEWIC.
“These indirect impacts of climate change are expected to continue into the foreseeable future.”
NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALE
Giles wanted to include the North Atlantic right whale on the list of threatened species because it is critically endangered with only about 400 left in the world.
According to the WWF, the large whales spend summer and fall in Canadian waters along the eastern seaboard and migrate to southern waters off the United States during the winter. Until recently, the whales frequented the same areas, which allowed measures to be put in place to protect them from becoming entangled in fishing gear or struck by vessels.
However, warming ocean temperatures have resulted in the whales’ food source, a tiny invertebrate called a copepod, moving north to colder waters where the North Atlantic right whale has followed them and where there are no protections in place.
“It’s a sad story because the North Atlantic right whale shifted from an area where it was protected to an area where it wasn’t protected,” Giles said.
Similar to the Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific, Giles said conservationists have been watching populations of the North Atlantic right whale decrease continuously.
“We’re celebrating every single birth as it occurs and tracking every death because when you get a population that’s in trouble like this one and that’s already so small, every single birth and death really matters,” she said.