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On the Eve of Extinction

Andrea Marks and Hannah Murphy

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In 1996, a biologist named Camille Parmesan observed that an obscure breed of butterfly living in the Western mountain ranges of the U.S. — the Edith’s checkerspot — had shifted its migratory range about 60 miles north in search of cooler temperatures. It was one of the first studies to document “the fingerprints of climate change,” as Parmesan put it — evidence that global warming was being felt in the animal kingdom. Twenty-four years later, these ripple effects are so common, says Wendy Foden of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they’re barely even publicized. In 2016, Foden and other scientists took inventory of climate change’s impact on our entire ecosystem, and found that 83 percent of all biological processes had already been altered. Foden calls these dramatic changes the “bootprints of climate change.”

Global warming has set off a cascade of disruptions to the web of life, changing animals’ breeding habits, food supply, and their very DNA. They are in distress not only from climate instability but also from the loss of habitat and pollution produced by unchecked human consumption. In the past century, species have been wiped out at a pace 100 times greater than the natural rate of extinction, and as many as 1 million species are at risk of going extinct in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report released last spring. There is perhaps no better bellwether of the peril we face than this dwindling biodiversity. “The evidence is crystal clear,” said Sandra Díaz, one of the co-chairs of the U.N. report. “Nature is in trouble. Therefore, we are in trouble.”

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