Educational Series: Heat Waves Are Baking Wildlife Alive

By Nick Engelfried
When marine biologists surveyed stretches of the Pacific Northwest coast after a record-smashing heat wave this past July, they discovered tens of millions of dead sea creatures roasted alive by the searing temperatures. Rocks in the intertidal zone were covered in dead mussels and barnacles, while the bodies of starfish lay limp in overheated tidepools. In all, more than a billion marine animals from clams and crabs to large fish are believed to have perished. Their deaths are a reminder of the massive impact of extreme heat on animals–and of the urgent need for action to prevent global climate change from making such events more frequent.

It is not only the U.S. Pacific Northwest that has been baking under runaway heat this summer. From the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the United States, to Eastern Europe, parts of Japan, the British Isles, and numerous other countries, vast swaths of the planet have sweltered under dangerous heat during the last couple of months. This is what a world gripped by human-caused climate change looks like; scientists warn that the July Northwest heat wave, for example, would have been nearly impossible without the rapid buildup of carbon in the atmosphere caused by our burning of fossil fuels. In the aftermath of extreme weather events, media coverage tends to focus overwhelmingly on the human cost. However, as this summer’s heat waves have shown, the toll among other animal species can be even greater.

How wildlife feel the heat

When extreme heat hits in the U.S. or other developed countries, most people who can do so head indoors to the safety of fans or air conditioning. For wild animals, this option does not exist–and that is important to keep in mind when considering how heat affects wildlife. On the Northwest coast, intertidal animals like mussels and barnacles baked in the hot sun at high tide and died by the millions, unable to cope with temperatures they were not adapted to withstand. Animals who could retreat into the water did not necessarily fare much better; for some starfish, salmon, and other creatures, the tidepools and estuaries they inhabited also became too warm to survive. On land, it remains unknown how many birds, mammals, and other wildlife perished due to heat stress.

However, exposure to hot temperatures is only the most direct source of animal fatalities from heat waves. Wildfires that have recently engulfed much of the U.S. West, made worse by the hot, dry conditions, have killed an untold number of creatures. In some affected ecosystems, wildlife are adapted to withstand fires by retreating into underground burrows or climbing high into tree canopies. However, recent fires have been so large and destructive that such defenses don’t work, as heat bakes soil far beneath the surface and even tall canopy trees burn from roots to crown. The death toll on wildlife, including threatened species and populations, is severe. During last year’s severe fire season, close to half of the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in Washington State are believed to have burned or suffocated in their burrows.

Then there are effects of heat and fire that reverberate up the food chain. Going into this fall, migrating seabirds accustomed to feasting on shellfish beds may not be able to find the food they need to sustain them. Starfish and other marine predators who escaped the hot temperatures could starve without their prey. On land, grazing animals will struggle to find food on landscapes that have turned to ash. Compounding the problem is that agriculture and development have already encroached on so much wildlife habitat, leaving less space for wildlife to seek new sources of food and shelter. Without swift action from humanity, the situation will only get worse.

An escalating crisis

Scientists have known about–and tried to warn the public of–how the climate crisis was likely to affect wildlife for decades. Yet, while most animal lovers are by now familiar with images of starving polar bears, the impacts on many other species have often seemed more abstract. As regional weather patterns shifted, researchers warned, whole species would have to shift their ranges, unable to survive in their current habitat. It is too easy to forget what this looks like in real time: landscapes baked to a crisp under heat so intense that animals who once lived there can no longer function. Some species will be able to adapt, moving north or into higher altitudes. Others will be unable to migrate fast enough, especially if other human activities have already destroyed the natural corridors that once connected potential habitat.

So, what is a good animal lover to do? There are concrete steps we can take to help wild animals survive extreme weather events. Recommendations from experts include putting water dishes out for wildlife to use on hot days, and creating habitat in your yard for animals who may have been displaced by heat or fires. Landscaping with native plants, avoiding the use of pesticides, and leaving fallen logs and other woody debris in place are all ways to create wildlife-friendly yards that can serve as havens from the heat.

At the same time, as long as climate change continues to worsen, such small gestures will not do much to save billions of animals from harm. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in August, makes it clear that the root of the problem is major economies’ reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity, fuel our cars, and power our industry and agriculture. The report, which draws on the expertise of the best climate scientists from across the globe, states that climate change is unequivocally caused by humans and only swift, far-reaching action can keep the crisis from getting worse. To reduce the frequency of future massive heat waves like the recent one in the Pacific Northwest, we must attack the underlying causes of the problem.

Being part of the solution

Fortunately, there is reason to think we can stop many of the most devastating effects of climate change from worsening for people and animals. The IPCC report shows that the world is on a trajectory toward even greater levels of climate disaster, but that we can still choose how severe the problem becomes. The most important positive steps world governments can take are to adopt policies that spur a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy and the electrification of transportation systems. You can help by contacting your representatives and urging them to support these and other climate actions.

This year’s heat waves, and their disastrous effect on wildlife, have made it more obvious than ever that climate change is an animal welfare issue and a safe future for animals is incompatible with continued reliance on fossil fuels. We have technically viable solutions to the climate crisis, from using wind and solar power to generate energy to making cars that run on electricity instead of internal combustion engines–and while individual actions can help, ultimately governments must act to prioritize these technologies. As animal lovers, we can make our voices heard and be a powerful force for change.

Photo credit: United States Bureau of Land Management

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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