Balancing Biodiversity in British Columbia

How climate change is impacting B.C. wildlife and what to do this Earth Day to help

Kaileigh Bunting // Contributor 

For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm loud and clear that climate change is an urgent threat to our planet. Rising temperatures and increasing natural disasters have already seriously impacted many ecosystems in Canada and are undoubtedly a consequence of human-caused global warming. The report stressed that the threat of increasing temperatures is still a concern for Canadian wildlife. Furthermore, this widespread warming is expected to intensify weather extremes across the provinces, such as the devastating forest fires seen in the past three summers. 

While pinpointing the exact actions required to promote a healthy planet can be difficult, Earth Day (April 22) is an opportunity for people to find resources, get educated, and begin to make meaningful changes to their lives. It can be challenging to focus on optimistic findings with so much negative media coverage surrounding the damage that has been done to the environment. CapU biology professor Dr. Thomas Flower is exploring how wildlife can adapt. In his most recent lecture for the Capilano Universe series, Can Life Adapt?, Dr. Flower explores how climate change has affected biodiversity in B.C. and looks at specific instances of wildlife adapting to environmental change.

Unlike many headlines seen in recent years, Dr. Flower is optimistic that individual change has, and continues to, make a difference in the battle against climate change. The message of urgency and the desire to make change “is driven by people recognizing the importance of [climate change] and then putting people into power who take that seriously,” said Dr. Flower, who has seen success in similar environmental concerns over his lifetime. He also highlights the sweeping changes occurring worldwide to decrease emissions, such as major countries, such as the United Kingdom, committing to all-electric vehicles by 2050 and an overall reduced global dependence on fossil fuels.

“Climate change is really normal for Earth—we’ve had periods of time when we were ten degrees hotter than we are now, and we’ve had periods of time when the entire Earth was frozen,” explained Dr. Flower. He stresses that the major problem with current global warming is that it is human-induced and is occurring at an extremely fast pace. Wildlife can genetically evolve and change its behaviour to promote survival, but will they adapt quickly enough?

Dr. Flower says that not all animals will be able to adapt, such as B.C.’s Sockeye Salmon, which need cold river water to reproduce each year successfully. Rising temperatures mean warmer water, and unlike mammals, fish can’t control their body temperature to adapt to this change. “Eventually those salmon in those warm waters just can’t live anymore,” Dr. Flower explained, adding how the decline of the species would have a cascading effect on the surrounding ecosystems.

The environment is highly interconnected, and a decline in one species is almost guaranteed to harm another’s longevity. Connecting to B.C.’s Sockeye, Dr. Flower explained that a rapid decline in the salmon population would mean a lack of food source for the resident killer whales (Orcas) that inhabit the West Coast’s waters. The Ocean Wise Conservation Association highlights that nutritional stress has already had a negative impact on the southern resident population, who reside in the waters off the coast of B.C. In contrast, Dr. Flower mentioned that some species have already adapted, such as certain species of Douglas Fir and the Yellow-Bellied Marmot—both of which are native to B.C.

Finally, it is crucial to consider the impact climate change will have on urban life worldwide. Luckily, in British Columbia, “most of our direct resources…are not going to be drastically impacted by climate change,” said Dr. Flower, indicating that the average urban resident may not notice any urgent lifestyle changes in the immediate future. That being said, Dr. Flower emphasized how the increase in global temperature will affect the world’s water: “Our future will be one where water has a much higher value.” This would lead to the damming of more rivers in Southern B.C. and likely damage more habitats. 

This Earth Day, Dr. Flower encourages people to think about living sustainably, which can be controlled by everyday choices consumers make. “We have to shift towards a model where the amount we take out is the same as the amount we put back into our environment,” he said, encouraging a circular economy that is kinder to the planet and all of its inhabitants. Dr. Flower suggested buying more second-hand items, reusing products until they are no longer functional, and properly recycling materials as avenues of positive change that individuals can take. Reducing dependence on single-use plastic and remembering to bring reusable shopping bags are additional lifestyle changes that will make a difference in creating a healthy planet. “I think the battle is nearly won with climate change,” said Dr. Flower, encouraging folks to stay committed and optimistic about the Earth’s future.

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