Global Climate Change The Exploratorium
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The effects of climate change on plants and animals are difficult to measure, but potentially dramatic. Many species inhabit precisely bounded ecological niches, and even small changes in climate may cause fundamental disruptions in habitat or food availability. In the past, animals could respond to these pressures by moving from one place to another. Today, however, land development has constrained and fragmented ranges and travel routes, making species migration in response to climate change much more difficult. Moreover, loss of key predator or prey species may affect the life cycles of other organisms in the food chain.

Organic processes can also play an important role in regulating the earth’s climate. Changes in the extent of snow, ice, or vegetation covering the planet’s surface can alter key climatic processes with unforeseeable effects (changing the amount of carbon dioxide consumed by plants, for example, or the proportion of the sun’s heat absorbed by the earth).

Biological evidence can also help researchers understand other processes. Sometimes, people keep records that offer clues to climate patterns—the changing dates of bird migrations, for instance, or the onset of spring. Other records that come from nature—such as tree rings, preserved bones, and fish scales in ocean sediments—go back farther than more direct measures of climate, making them valuable indicators of climate change.

 glossary glossary terms  

Click for definitions of words used on this page:

carbon cycle
coral bleaching
greening hypothesis

View the full, printable version of the glossary.

Current Coral Bleaching Hot Spots - Thumbnail

Current Coral Bleaching Hot Spots
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ORA/OSDPD Coral Reef Team, NESDIS
near real-time data

Central America Goes-8 - thumbnail

Central America/GOES-8 Wildfire ABBA - GOES Biomass Burning Monitoring Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison
near real-time data

Leafing Dates of Oak- thumbnail

Leafing Dates of Oak
Woodland Trust
long-term data

Greening in the North - thumbnail

Greening in the North
- Ranga B. Myneni, Department of Geography, Boston University
short-term data

Case Studies - thumbnail

Case study: Climate Change and Animal Populations

 questions about this section  

question Have biologists noticed shifts in animal populations related to climate change?

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 more sites about the biosphere

United States Geological Survey (USGS)/Status and Trends of the Nation’s Biological Resources - This report, written by scientists in nontechnical language, includes an excellent essay about climate change, forecasting, models, and biology.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Global Warming Site - Includes downloadable teaching resources and a searchable data base of materials for educators, as well as descriptions of potential impacts on various environments.

Global Warming: Early Warning Signs - This world map, created by the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows local signs of global change, with clickable “hot spots.”

U.S. Global Change Research Program: National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change - Detailed reports on the possible effects on agriculture, forests, and coastal and marine resources.

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