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Four unexpected 'upsides' of climate change

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, August 4, 2015, 1:58 PM - The science has been in for some time: Earth's climate is changing, and human activity has been making it worse.

"No big deal," the skeptics say, "we'll just adapt" -- like retooling a multi-trillion-dollar civilization to function in a climate paradigm it wasn't designed for is as simple as tossing on an extra sweater.

Still, it won't quite be the apocalypse. In fact, in a highly subjective, sting-in-the-tail way, there are actually some unexpected upsides. 

Here are four we've scrounged up.

(Some) animals will benefit

Every day there's a new story of one species or another that is hard-pressed for climate change, and some scientists have suggested the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction.

But amid this avalanche of bad news, there's some odd little upsides for some species, like Australia's grey nursing sharks.

Grey Nurse Shark at Fish Rock Cave, NSW.jpg
"Grey Nurse Shark at Fish Rock Cave, NSW". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While other sharks have been stressed by rising ocean temperatures, warmer waters have proven a strange boon to this one, which is separated into two distinct populations on either side of the continent.

The grey sharks are declining so thoroughly they may go extinct by 2050, but according to Mother Nature Network, the waters around Australia are warming enough that the two populations will soon be able to migrate toward each other, boosting their chances of survival.

As for other species, researchers at McMaster University in Canada and St. Andrews University in Scotland might have some good news on that, courtesy of the unassuming zebrafish.

"Zebrafisch" by Azul - Own work. Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Wikimedia Commons.

When the scientists raised several zebrafish embryos at warmer temperatures, it turned out the newly-hatched fish adapted well -- but more oddly, they also proved better able to adapt to colder waters as well as warmer.

"We thought that they might do better under warmer conditions because they grew up in warmer conditions. We didn’t think they’d also do better under colder conditions, but they did," McMaster biologist Graham Scott said in a release.

As optimistic as that is, having some animals thrive under climate change while others struggle will still upset the balance of nature. Discovery News, for example, reports warmer polar seas open up new hunting grounds for orcas. Great for killer whales, not so great for prey like beluga or narwhals, which are already struggling.

When it comes to climate change, there's always a sting in the tail.

Wine-making in new areas (at the expense of traditional areas)

Like all crops, grapes used in wine-making have their own climate sweet spot, and as that sweet spot migrates, it takes vintners' fortunes with it.

Have a look at this map, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science paper "Climate change, wine, and conservation."

Credit: PNAS (Image Source)

That's an awful lot of red in areas of Europe, Australia, South Africa and California that are the usual giants of wine production. In fact, the report's authors say suitability in those areas will drop between 25 to 73 per cent by the middle of this century.

But look at all the blue zones, where wine is expected to be more suitable for cultivation by 2050.

Europe gains almost as much as it loses. The Niagara region of Ontario loses out, but new potential vineyards cover much of the southwest of the province. B.C.'s mountain valleys look good too, and the report's authors say western North America stands to gain quite a bit.

But, like we said, there's always a sting in the tail. As more of those areas come under cultivation, that's an even greater strain on local ecosystems. Species like the grizzly bear, caribou and wolf will have to adapt.

And while more wine in the blue zones will be a boon, current producers aren't likely to just shutter their vineyards.

"Attempts to maintain wine grape productivity and quality in the face of warming may be associated with increased water use for irrigation and to cool grapes through misting or sprinkling, creating potential for freshwater conservation impacts," the authors warn.

The Northwest Passage opens up to shipping (and international incidents)

In early September, 2013, the bulk carrier cargo ship Nordic Orion left the port of Vancouver, bound for Finland. 

In so doing, it sailed into the history books, because rather than going via the bustling Panama Canal, it took a route that long stymied merchants' northern aspirations: The fabled Northwest Passage.

Although climate change has been eroding Arctic winter ice levels for some time, the Nordic Orion was one of the first ships to be able to sail from Canada through the passage, although it did have the help of an ice breaker for part of the way according to the National Post.

So how much time was expected to be shaved off the ship's journey? An estimated four days -- which doesn't sound like much until you look at the books and find that's a savings of around $200,000. And the company operating the ship said it was able to load up the Nordic Orion with around 25 per cent more cargo, as the Arctic ocean route was deeper than the usual Panama jaunt.

That ship isn't the only one since, and it's likely to become more common. Scientific American says the probability of making a largely ice-free trip through the passage will be around 95 per cent by 2050 if current trends hold up.

So shorter travel times and lower transport costs. What's the downside? Everyone around the Arctic is going to be interested in the area, and Canada has to struggle to keep up as more ships traverse the region.

Denmark, which owns Greenland, and Russia have both pressed claims for natural resources in the Arctic, and Canada actually has an ongoing dispute with Denmark over the ownership of Hans Island.

"HansIsland" by Toubletap - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

That's not to mention the effect of receding sea ice on the Arctic's animal life. The iconic polar bear, for example, only numbers around 25,000 individuals, and although they are currently listed as vulnerable, not endangered, their numbers are expected to continue to decline drastically.

(Some) deserts may get greener

This is probably the best example of climate change having some really counter-intuitive effects: In a warmer world, many plants may actually become more lush ... particularly in some desert areas.

In fact, a 2013 study found that, between 1982 and 2011, leaf cover in drier areas like the U.S. southwest, the Australian Outback, the Middle East and some parts of Africa, actually increased by around 11 per cent.

"Outback" by Gabriele Delhey - photo taken by Gabriele Delhey. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Why? The same thing that's causing rising global temperatures in the first place: Carbon dioxide. Plants suck it out of the atmosphere and pump out oxygen in its stead, and the more greenhouse gases there are, the better plants do.

Not only that, one of the authors of the study, Randall Donohue of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said different types of plants will make inroads into the region.

"Trees are reinvading grasslands, and this could quite possibly be related to the carbon dioxide effect," Donohue told Live Science. "Long lived woody plants are deep rooted and are likely to benefit more than grasses from an increase in carbon dioxide."

It sounds optimistic, but the report is no reason to celebrate just yet, as the researchers say it also relies on having the right amount of moisture in the air.

And while some deserts may benefit, some other, more populous parts of the world are facing major drought. 

California, for example, is experiencing a major lack of rainfall fuelling an active forest fire season. And in Canada, raindrops are few and far between out west this summer, leading to water restrictions in B.C., struggling crops on the Prairies, and a major wildfire season that has seen thousands of evacuations so far in 2015.

SOURCES: Mother Nature Network | McMaster University | Discovery News | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | National Post | Scientific American | Macleans | IUCN | Live Science

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