Category Archives: Geo: Geography and Environment

Are salamanders finally feeling the heat? The overlooked effects of climate change.

By Catherine Waite, University of Nottingham

Our society is inundated with information about climate change: it is in the news, infiltrating film and television, science, and policy.  And yet misconceptions remain regarding the importance and prevalence of such change.  Often, focus is placed entirely on the impacts to flagship species; the polar bear losing its icy home, for instance.  Unfortunately, this example is just the tip of the iceberg.  Climate change is affecting many more species than previously estimated and in myriad ways, including behavioural and physiological changes, as pointed out in a recent article in Geo: Geography and Environment (McCarthy et al., 2017).

File:Plethodon cinereus.jpg

A Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
Photo Credit: Brian Gratwick, Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0

In this article, the authors investigated the effects of a warming climate on the body size of redback salamanders, finding that body size varies greatly depending on temperature.  The salamanders were 2.3% larger in warmer areas versus cooler ones.  Meanwhile a size increase of 1.8% was observed within areas that had experienced warming of 0.5-1.2oC between the periods 1950-1970 and 1980-2000.  This is by no means the only species to have been affected by the changing climate.  Both behavioural and physiological changes in other species have been noted: marmots now end their hibernation three weeks earlier compared to 40 years ago, martens in the Americas are getting bigger, and the skull shape of alpine chipmunks is altering due to climate pressure.

It is essential to recognise that such responses and adaptions do not mean that these species are successfully adapting to our warming world.  Ecologists have noted that climate is changing too fast for species, as they cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with projected rates of future climate change (Jezkova and Wiens, 2016).  So, even if the salamanders studied by McCarthy et al., (2017) seem to be adapting to, and tolerating, changes in temperature so far, they may not continue to do so in the future.  The same can be said for other species; if they can’t adapt quickly enough, extinction may be the outcome, and we can forget the notion that this is purely a theoretical, future event.  The first mammal global extinction due entirely to climate change has already been confirmed: the Bramble Cay molomys, an Australian rat-like rodent, went extinct due to rising sea levels inundating the coral island on which it lived.

Not many people have heard about the Bramble Cay molomys.  They have heard about the polar bear or the Bengal tiger, though.  These attention-grabbing species have been used as ‘flagships’ for conservation organisations, but are they any more important than their overlooked counterparts?  Is it justifiable to focus on flagship species in an attempt to attract attention and money that can then be used to support conservation at larger scales?  Or, is a disproportionate amount of conservation resources being spent on these flagship species?  It’s a delicate issue, and one that few agree on.  All we can do is remain aware that, even if the intent behind flagship species is to help raise attention and funds for wider conservation efforts, we can’t let them overshadow other, overlook, species that are also in trouble.

It has been suggested that “most species on Earth have been impacted by climate change in some way or another” (The Guardian, 2017).  However, there has been enormous under-reporting of these impacts to date.  The IUCN Red List only classes 7% of mammals and 4% of birds as threatened by climate change and severe weather.  This is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many species wait decades for updates within the list and most of the Earth’s species have never been evaluated.  Indeed, a study published in Science late last year found the current warming of just 1oC has already left marks on 77 of 94 different ecological processes, including species’ distributions and physical traits.  This is supported by another study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year, which found 47% of land mammals and 23% of birds have already suffered negative impacts from climate change.  This huge difference in percentages from the IUCN Red List demonstrates how wrong we were about the numbers of species being affected by climate change.  And the full extent is likely worse even than this.  This research only considered two well-studied groups (mammals and birds) and the authors commented that we are likely to be significantly underestimating the extent of climate impacts on lesser studied groups even more.  If we can be so wrong for our most studied groups, how much worse are our predictions likely to be for species we don’t know much about, like corals, bats, fungi and frogs?

Perhaps most disconcertingly, we have only experienced a relatively small amount of warming so far (~1oC), in relation to that predicted by the end of the century (4-5oC). When considering the changes that only 1oC of warming has wrought, it does not seem hyperbolic to say that the effects of further warming may be colossal.  So what can we do?  We need to change the way we think about and report climate change.  It has been pointed out that many studies into climate change focus on forecasting, and tend to ignore the fact that our climate has already altered.  When climate change is viewed only as a future threat, the impetus to do something today may be reduced.  But climate change is happening now, and it is already having serious effects on many more species than we previously thought.  Hopefully, with articles such as McCarthy et al.’s acknowledging alterations that have already taken place, we can begin to accept that changes are already affecting nearly all species on Earth; and that the time to act is now.

60-world2 Briggs, H., (2016) Climate changing ‘too fast’ for species BBC , 23 November 2016

60-world2 Hance, J., (2017) Climate change impacting ‘most’ species on Earth, even down to their genomes The Guardian

books_icon Hunt, E., (2017) Act now before entire species are lost to global warming, say scientists The Guardian

books_icon Jeskova, T., and Wiens, J.,  (2016) Rates of change in climatic niches in plan and animal populations are much slower than projected climate Proceedings of the Royal Society B change 

books_icon McCarthy, T., Masson, P., Thieme, A., Leimgruber, P., and Gratwicke, B. (2017). The relationship between climate and adult body size in redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Geo: Geography and Environment, 4:1.

books_icon Pacifici, M., Visconti, P., Butchart, S., Watson, J., Cassola, F., Rondinino, C., (2017) Species’ traits influenced their response to recent climate change Nature Climate Change 7, 205-208 doi:10.1038/nclimate3223

60-world2 Scheffers, B., de Meeseter, L., Bridge, T., Hoffmann, A., Pandolfi J., (2016) THe broad footprint of climate chante from

60-world2 Slezak, M., (2016) Revealed: first mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change The Guardian 14 June 2016

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

The Great Lakes–at the U.S. and Canadian international boundary–are the planet’s largest system of freshwater (Government of Canada, 2016). The five Great Lakes (Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Erie) represent more than twenty percent of the world’s freshwater supply (Canadian Geographic, n.d.). This oft-repeated axiom, however, is somewhat misleading. A mere one percent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year in rain and snow-melt (Government of Canada, 2016). This supply cannot be carelessly utilised without destroying the stock. Freshwater systems are not inherently sustainable; water abundance is a myth.

Recent record low levels in three of the five Great Lakes have leaders to lawmakers to environmentalists sharing the common interest of conservation and restoration in the basin (Boyce, 2016). Nevertheless, a small Wisconsin city narrowly outside the basin is thirsty for Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s 70,000 residents can no longer drink from the city’s depleted aquifer. What little water remains is contaminated with naturally occurring cancer-causing radium. Though Waukesha is outside of the Great Lakes watershed, the city’s engineers can almost taste Lake Michigan’s water – they just need a pipeline or two. Certainly, one small city’s request for water beyond the Great Lakes watershed does not seem significant, but is it? What does this mean for the Great Lakes basin? And perhaps more poignantly, what does this potential test case mean for other thirsty American cities in the context of a changing climate?

More than 35 million people rely on the five Great Lakes (NOAA, n.d). Another 70,000 people drinking from a straw (or rather, a pipeline) seems somewhat inconsequential. The concern, therefore, is not necessarily about Waukesha; the concern is about who might be next. Las Vegas? San Francisco? Nearly all states west of the Rockies have experienced “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions in recent years (USDA, 2017). It seems Waukesha could be poised to become a precedent-setting test case for moving water beyond the basin.

Water vaulting is nothing new – the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Qaraqum Canal, South-to-North Eastern, and South-to-North Central are just a few very large water diversions that immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, freshwater scarcity is a global problem just beginning to touch North America. Climate change impacts on freshwater supply and quality will undoubtedly intensify in coming years. Changes in precipitation patterns, increases in temperature, evaporation, and sea level rise will continue to threaten lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. While climate scientists are quick to point out that no single event can be attributed to climate change, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm and society will be forced to adapt to these altered patterns.

Understandably, adaptation is difficult. O’Neill and Graham (2016) note that adaptation decisions associated with climatic changes pose challenges to person-place bonds. In an era of changing climate and environmental quandaries, place attachments are at risk. While nobody wants to see Waukesha residents displaced due water travails, nobody wants to see the Great Lakes–one of the world’s most valuable resources–positioned for lackadaisical exploitation. To what degree have conservation efforts or alternate projects been considered in Waukesha?

Despite the deserved reverence for this remarkable resource, and our obvious dependence on it, modern society has proven to be a poor caretaker of the Great Lakes in the recent past. Pollutants, toxins, eutrophication, sewage, wetland loss, invasive species, climate change, and over-extraction are all threatening the Great Lakes and the species who depend on them. Is it fathomable that a large-scale diversion project could be a future threat? Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next? Waukesha could be precedent setting for water woes and climate travails throughout the parched United States.


books_icon Boyce, C. (2016). Protecting the integrity of the Great Lakes: Past, present, and future. Natural Resources & Environment, 31.2, 36-39.

60-world2 Canadian Geographic. (n.d.). The Great Lakes. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from

60-world2 Government of Canada. (2016). Great Lakes quickfacts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Environment and Climate Change Canada

60-world2 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (n.d.). About our Great Lakes: Great Lakes basin facts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from

books_icon O’Neill, S. J., and Graham, S. (2016). (En)visioning place-based adaptation to sea-level rise. Geo: Geography and Environment, e00028, doi: 10.1002/geo2.28.

60-world2 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2017). United States Drought Monitor. Retrieved February 26, 2017 from

Open science: carrots and sticks

Open data can help boost democracy around the world, wrote Jonathan Gray in The Guardian. Writing in advance of the fifth global Open Data Day, he argued that open data are vital in struggles for social justice and democratic accountability.

In this context, Sabina Leonelli, Daniel Spichtinger and Barbara Prainsack’s commentary, ‘Sticks and carrots: encouraging open science at its source’ – published in new RGS-IBG open access journal, Geo: Geography and Environment – is very topical.

Open data and open data are key parts of Open Science (OS) which commonly refers to (i) transparency in experimental methodology, observation, and collection of data; (ii) public availability and reusability of scientific data; (iii) public accessibility and transparency of scientific communication and; (iv) using web-based tools to facilitate scientific collaboration (The OpenScience Project).

Open Science Umbrella. Image credit: Flikr user 지우 황 CC BY 2.0

Open Science Umbrella. Image credit: Flikr user 지우 황 CC BY 2.0

Leonelli et al argue that while great strides have been made to make research outputs (such as research articles) publically accessible via open access, more needs to be done to ensure that the open science agenda is fully realised. They make a case for developing greater incentives for researchers to engage in OS across all of its stages, and for OS to be more systematically supported and promoted by funders and learned societies, in order to improve scientific research and public participation. The authors argue that the OS agenda offers opportunities that Geographers are yet to fully taken advantage of, and point to potentially productive discussionsaround the ethics and sensitivities of data sharing.

Why is this important? Leonelli et al argue that open science can lead to better and more efficient science; skill share between researchers; increased transparency of knowledge production and its outcomes; greater public participation and engagement and; even economic growth, in particular for small and medium sized companies who have increased access to important research findings.

About GeoGeo

Geo is an open access journal, which means that anyone with an internet connection can read and/or download articles free of charge.

 Leonelli, S., Spichtinger, D. and Prainsack, B. (2015), Sticks and carrots: encouraging open science at its source. Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.2.

60-world2 Gray Jonathan 2015 Five ways open data can boost democracy around the world  The Guardian

New journal, Geo: Geography and Environment open for submissions

by Fiona Nash, Managing Editor: Academic Publications at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

UntitledGeo: Geography and Environment is a fully open access, international journal published by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and Wiley. It is dedicated to publishing high quality articles from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research and has an interdisciplinary focus that spans the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Geo welcomes research contributions that bring new understandings to geographical research agendas, advance spatial research, foster methodological development, and address geographical enquiries in contemporary issues.

Reasons to publish in Geo:

  • immediate open access
  • high standard, rigorous peer review
  • articles enhanced by integrated hosting of multimedia and data content
  • fully compliant with all open access mandates
  • articles published under Creative Commons Licenses

Automatic Article Publication Charge waivers and discounts will be given to authors from countries on the Waivers and Discounts List. Authors should submit a waiver or discount request during the submission of their article.

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