Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
1. Heat waves kill people — and climate change is making it much, much worse
Climate change is fueling heat waves around the world.
The story: In the United States, the Pacific Northwest is experiencing one of its most intense heat waves ever, claiming nearly 200 lives so far. The extreme heat has left many wondering: Is climate change making it worse? According to a new study, the answer is yes.
By comparing climate models with health records in 732 sites across six continents, a team of scientists found that on average more than a third of all heat-related deaths can be attributed to climate change. However, in many places, climate change is not the only factor exacerbating the effects of heat waves, reported Alejandra Borunda for National Geographic. Unequal access to air conditioning, well-constructed housing and shade can also make people more vulnerable to extreme temperatures.
The big picture: In the United States, extreme heat kills more people each year than any other type of natural disaster.
Slowing greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change is the key to mitigating future heatwaves, though experts say that we must also prepare for extreme temperatures by increasing access to air conditioning and reinforcing electrical grids to ensure that they stand up to extreme heat.
Trees are crucial for slowing climate change and improving human health.
The story: The largest U.S. cities are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, but research shows that trees can lower urban temperatures by as much as 5.6 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).
An added bonus? “In addition to reducing heat, trees filter out air pollution, suck up storm water, store carbon, nurture wildlife and even improve people’s mental and physical health,” writes Catrin Einhorn for The New York Times.
The big picture: Despite their importance, trees are undervalued as a climate solution, says Brian Stone, an expert on sustainable urban planning.
“It’s hard for us to think of trees as actual infrastructure rather than an amenity, and because of that, we don’t allocate sufficient funds,” he told The New York Times. “If we think about it as actual infrastructure on par with investing in roads and sewers and everything else, those costs will become more acceptable to us.”
Another side effect of climate change: smaller animals.
The story: A growing body of research suggests that climate change could be affecting the size of species around the world, reported Benji Jones for Vox. In many cases, smaller sized animals are better equipped to keep cool in hotter climates — and scientists have already identified birds, deer, rodents, insects and fish that have shrunk in recent years as global temperatures have soared. For cold-blooded species such as frogs, warmer temperatures could cause eggs to hatch sooner, which could also make them smaller in adulthood.
The big picture: Though the extent to which climate change is affecting animals’ sizes is still unclear, scientists fear that shrinking species could have negative consequences for the planet’s biodiversity.
“The fact that they’re smaller has implications for their future reproduction, which, in turn, has implications for population size,” Jennifer Sheridan, a reptile expert, told Vox. Stunted growth could also affect species migration potential, their food chains and, for amphibians, their ability to stay moist during droughts.
Kiley Price is a staff writer and news editor at Conservation International.
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Cover image: Trees in old growth forest in Mantadia National Park (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)