This year, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris from November to December (COP 21). Here, leaders (including Jane Goodall) will discuss what the nations of the world can do collaboratively to combat climate change. JGI is especially interested in this event because the survival of chimpanzees is dependent upon the measures humans can take to preserve their environment.
Before we can talk about the solutions, let’s first discuss why climate change affects chimpanzees.
Forests as storage centers of carbon dioxide
Forests, especially the tropical rainforests in which chimpanzees thrive, are huge storage centers for carbon dioxide. The total amount of carbon stored in all of our forests is more than the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. When trees die, they release CO2 into the atmosphere. As deforestation is occurring, the atmosphere is being filled with huge amounts of CO2, a greenhouse gas.
Greenhouse gases are important for balancing the Earth’s climate. While some of the sun’s energy escapes the atmosphere, some of it gets trapped and reused by greenhouse gases. The imbalance of CO2 in the atmosphere is trapping more heat than normal, and is steadily warming the Earth. This is why every tree that is felled contributes to climate change.
Temperature and rainfall
Increasing temperatures could negatively impact the survival of different species of trees. In some areas, temperatures could increase so dramatically that they change the type of habitat that exists there. Tree populations that are geographically limited from shifting to more suitable habitats will die out. This temperature change will also affect the amount of rainfall, because more water will be evaporated into the atmosphere than is normal. This will cause flooding in some places, and droughts in others. Again, trees that are not adapted to this amount of rainfall will die out. Drought also increases the probability of wildfire and the decreases a tree’s ability to produce sap, which protects it from invasive insects.
Populations of chimps that are affected
We have already discussed how deforestation affects chimpanzees. There are already cases of subspecies of chimpanzees approaching extinction throughout Africa. For example, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, a rare subspecies that lives on the fringe of the rainforest, is likely to die out if its habitat changes too drastically. Although increased temperatures and rainfall may actually stabilize the tree populations in rainforest habitats, fringe environments like these will likely become uninhabitable for chimpanzee populations. According to a recent study, there may not be anywhere for the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee to migrate if this were to happen (drexel.edu/now/). This is just one example. Climate change is dislocating chimpanzee populations all over Africa, and exposing them to threats that their habitat normally protects them from.
What can we learn from the chimps?
If chimpanzees are unable to migrate as their habitats change, they only have one option: to adapt. Scientists are currently studying chimpanzees’ ability to adapt to their changing environment. By continuing to study the effect climate change has on chimpanzees, we can hope to help rebuild their habitat.
(Text by Kelsey Frenkiel)