How Does Climate Change Affect Animals? Thinking Beyond Ourselves

Between sea levels rising, the warming of the polar regions, and a worldwide shift in climate zones, climate change will have a profound impact on human beings: but that is not its only impact. Human beings share the planet with millions of different species of plants and animals. This article will answer the question “how does climate change affect animals?” by looking at how climate change in the past changed habitats and even led to the extinction of species. Additionally, the effects of the current warming period is having on animals today will be explored.

How Does Climate Change Affect Animals?

On a geologic scale, the climate is always in flux. Over the four billion year history of the earth, there have been many periods with higher or lower average temperatures. These extremes have often been connected with extinction events where many of the species that inhabited the earth at the time died out due to the changes in their climate.

Currently, global temperatures are on the rise. This rise in global temperatures has been exacerbated by the extensive use of fossil fuels by human beings over the last 200 years. Due to these actions and the continued use of fossil fuels, the globe is warming at a fast rate. The effect that this is had on animal life can already be seen, and historically the effects mankind has had on the extinction of many animal species is easy to see.

In order to give a more inclusive answer to the question of “how does climate change affect animals,” this article will first look at some historic extinction events that are related to climate change. By studying what has happened in the past, we can get a better view of what to expect in the future with similar types of climate changes. From there we will look at how our current climate changes have already affected animals and their habitats before speculating on the potential future effects climate change will have on animals.

a pair of kea

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Historic Climate Change Related Extinction Events

There have been several extinction events throughout the history of the world. Studying the causes and mechanisms of the extinction events that happened in the far past, millions of years ago, can be difficult: but several of the previous extinction events are theorized to have been caused by climate change. Impacts from asteroids could create dust clouds that partially blocked the light from the sun, leading to global cooling that lasted several years, killing off many species that required the warmth or energy from the sun. This is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Volcanic eruptions are another potential cause of historic climate change. These effects are easier to see as there have been several large volcanic eruptions that have had worldwide climate effects within our written history. One of the most famous of these in recent history happened in the year 1816. In 1815, Mount Pinatubo, in what is now Indonesia, experienced a huge eruption. The resulting cloud of dust spread throughout the world creating a volcanic winter event in the northern hemisphere.

It was known at the time as the year without a summer. Crops in New England and Europe failed at a level that caused famine and resulting strife. It is estimated that 200,000 people died in Europe due to the volcanic eruption. In New England, they experienced snowdrifts of up to 20 inches in June and July, killing off many birds and animals through exposure or loss of food sources.

The Holocene Glacial Retreat

iceberg melting on the ocean

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The Holocene Glacial Retreat was the end of the last ice age when sheets of glacial ice covered much of North America and Europe. One of the largest effects of this glacial retreat was the large sea level rise. It is believed that the sea level rose on average about 20 millimeters per year, resulting in a rise in sea level of as much is 10 meters.

This covered the coastal lands that early farmers had cultivated, forcing people to abandon their farms and villages as the sea water claimed them. The animals that lived in these areas either died as their habitats were covered in the seawater or moved into different areas, competing for survival with the animals that already lived in their new habitats.

Many animals that had adapted to the harsh temperatures of the Ice Age soon died out, including the woolly mammoth and other megafauna. Climate change likely played a part in these extinctions, though these animals were common targets for human hunters so overhunting could have played a part as well. Likely, a combination of both of these issues was the ultimate causes.

Take the woolly mammoth, for example. It had adapted to the cold weather of the ice age, so when the glaciers began to receded, its habitat receded with the ice into smaller and smaller areas that could not sustain the mammoth population. With too many woolly mammoths for the area to support, the mammoths would have overtaxed the resources they needed to survive, leading to mass deaths due to starvation.

At the same time, human hunters relied on the meat, pelts, ivory, and fat of the woolly mammoths for their own survival, so their hunting would continue. In the end, the woolly mammoth and other megafauna of the time died out.

Doggerland‘s Disappearance And Sea Level Rising

Glaciers and Sea Level Rise

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As our current issues of climate change include the effects of a rising sea level, looking at the fate of Doggerland can help answer the question “how does climate change affect animals?” During the last Ice Age, Great Britain was not an island off the coast of Europe but was connected to the continents via a land bridge. As sea levels rose, this area–now known as Doggerland–became an island in the North Sea before ultimately that island itself slipped under the sea.

Many different remains of animals have been found on the Dogger bank in what was once the hilly area of Doggerland. As Doggerland shifted from becoming a peninsula to an island, the humans and animals that lived in the area migrated to higher grounds. Ultimately, as the sea continued to rise, even these higher grounds were flooded, leading to the death of all plants, animals, and humans that could not escape or survive in the sea.

Current Effects of Climate Change and Human Action on Animals

seagull on ground with garbage

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Human actions have drastically changed the lives of a multitude of different species of animals. Human beings are one of the most successful animals on the earth in adapting the environments to our needs. This has resulted in what scientists have called the Holocene extinction event that is ongoing for the last 12,000 years since human beings spread throughout the world. Part of this has been from hunting and from deforestation or the conversion of what were once animal habitats to areas inhabited by humans.

In addition to animal extinctions, humans have domesticated several species of animals to use for food, companions, or for work. Currently, thanks to the rise in human population and the use of livestock, only 4% of the biomass of mammals on the earth are wild animals with 60% of the biomass taken up by domesticated animals and 36% by humans. This is not due entirely to climate change, but when asking “how does climate change affect animals,” we need to look at the issue from a holistic viewpoint, understanding the already massive effect human beings have had on the natural world

Climate Change Shrinks Or Shifts Habitats

two polar bears in an iceberg

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As with the end of the Ice Age, climate change has been shifting the habitats of a multitude of animal species. One of the most evident of these shrinking habitats is that of the polar bear. Bears hibernate in the winter, but before they do so they must consume many calories so that they can survive their long sleep. For polar bears, that means hunting seals in the Arctic Ocean. Polar bears venture out onto the frozen ice that lines the arctic coast and get their fill of the fatty and abundant seals.

Climate change has led to ice-free shores in some areas of the Arctic, preventing the polar bears from hunting their usual seals prior to hibernation. This has led to many polar bear deaths as well as polar bears venturing into small Arctic villages scrounging in the garbage to find whatever food scraps they can.

Arctic species such as the polar bear are not the only ones that have to deal with shifts in habitat. With rising temperatures, spring comes earlier in some areas leading to migratory animals to shift their patterns of migration as the conditions they need to survive change. When species shift their habitat, it can have a profound impact on the other species in the ecosystem. Rising temperatures also contribute to the drying of certain areas, leaving animals without adequate water to survive.


None of these changes have happened in a vacuum, as all of the plants and animals in an ecosystem rely on other plants or animals for their survival. When climate change forces one of them to move to a different area in order to survive, the plants and animals that needed that animal for their own survival could die out as well.

How does climate change affect animals? It has an incredibly large impact by shifting or even shrinking their habitat; and that can lead to widespread extinction.

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Green and Growing Team

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