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Plants, Animals, and Ecosystems

Most plants and animals live in areas with very specific climate conditions, such as temperature and rainfall patterns, that enable them to thrive. Any change in the climate of an area can affect the plants and animals living there, as well as the makeup of the entire ecosystem. Some species are already responding to a warmer climate by moving to cooler locations. For example, some North American animals and plants are moving farther north or to higher elevations to find suitable places to live. Climate change also alters the life cycles of plants and animals. For example, as temperatures get warmer, many plants are starting to grow and bloom earlier in the spring and survive longer into the fall. Some animals are waking from hibernation sooner or migrating at different times, too.

What's at stake?

Disappearing Habitats

As the Earth gets warmer, plants and animals that need to live in cold places, like on mountaintops or in the Arctic, might not have a suitable place to live. If the Earth keeps getting warmer, up to one–fourth of all the plants and animals on Earth could become extinct within 100 years. Every plant and animal plays a role in the ecosystem (for example, as a source of food, a predator, a pollinator, a source of shelter), so losing one species can affect many others.

  • What can people do about it?
    Just like people, plants and animals will have to adapt to climate change. Many types of birds in North America are already migrating further north as the temperature warms. People can help these animals adapt by protecting and preserving their habitats.

What's at stake?

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are created in shallow tropical waters by millions of tiny animals called corals. Each coral makes a skeleton for itself, and over time, these skeletons build up to create coral reefs, which provide habitat for lots of fish and other ocean creatures. Warmer water has already caused coral bleaching (a type of damage to corals) in many parts of the world. By 2050, live corals could become rare in tropical and sub-tropical reefs due to the combined effects of warmer water and increased ocean acidity caused by more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The loss of coral reefs will reduce habitats for many other sea creatures, and it will disrupt the food web that connects all the living things in the ocean.

  • What can people do about it?
    To help give coral reefs a better chance of surviving the effects of climate change, swimmers, boaters, and divers should treat these fragile ecosystems with care. People can also support groups working to protect coral reefs.

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