Is Global Warming Leading to Extinction?

Lower elevation species have another problem. As animals seek cooler ground -- up-slope or toward the global poles -- they often bump into human civilization. Multi-lane highways, giant malls, cities and other natural areas clear cut for human become unpassable for wild species.

Orchids in the Mist

It's not just animals affected by the temperature changes either. Plants, the basis of all animal life, struggle with global warming as we found back among the rich plant life of Costa Rica.

Two-thirds of Monteverde's plant species, including its orchids, never touch the ground because they're epiphytes -- plants that grow on top of other plants. So changes that affect one plant, may bring adverse effects to all the other plants that are supported by it.

Look closely at Monteverde's orchids, as American scientist Karen Masters does, and you see some already in serious trouble.

"I'm trying to mimic the mist frequencies of the 1970s, so I collect mist daily and apply it to each individual orchid," says Masters.

Half of the test-orchids in the forest get sprayed by Masters while the others get no mist except from the weather.

"We know mist frequency is declining here. They're probably not adapted to increasing periods of dessication, of dryness," says Masters. "I hate to say with certainty what the outcomes will be, so that's why I'm running the experiments."

But Masters says her results so far show in today's weather, some of her wild orchids -- and by implication thousands of other plant species here -- are stressed.

From around the world, scientists now report mammals, mollusks, grasses, trees are being disrupted in ways they would expect from global warming. Species are either trying for cooler ground or losing weight or thinning out -- and in effect throwing natural schedules out of sync.

Despair and Hope

The scientists are not telling us that the world is coming to an end, but that there will be change and increasing uncertainty about just exactly what that change is going to be. So what the scientists are telling us is that we've got to get ready, to adapt and to try to help all of life adapt.

But how could we even think about a problem so big? What do the scientists think and feel about what they have discovered? How do they live daily with the knowledge about what the rising temperature is doing to life on Earth?

"I see sometimes biologists that have been working at a site for a very long time and toward the end of their experiences, they become somewhat jaded, they become saddened, because they feel there's been this inevitable degradation of the forest or the species that they've come to know and love," says Chris Raxworthy.

"The Biosphere. That's the totality of life on the face of the Earth. It's a razor-thin membrane of living organisms," says Wilson. "That's our bubble, we live in that. Have we got any big risk in it? We got a lot of risk in it!"

"It's an urgent situation, but it's not a situation that should paralyze people with fear or with inaction," says Masters. "I am very optimistic that we will adjust. There's such an amazing groundswell, such an amazing movement by people around the world."

"If we continue business as usual, yes, I think life as we know it is going to change drastically," says Parmesan. "And we're going to have massive extinctions."

"This is a challenge that's one of the most daunting before humanity now," says Wilson. "It is also a magnificent challenge, that I think that people understand that they would want to be part of it."

The biologists are telling us if the average global temperature keeps going up it's not a question of if -- but how many -- more species will be lost.

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