Global Warming Spreads Diseases That Threaten Wildlife--The Case of Black Abalone

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Today the National Marine Fisheries Service officially classified black abalone as an "endangered species." (I discussed the proposed listing last year.) Rising sea levels and ocean acidification, both caused by global warming, are among the threats to black abalone. Of even more concern is the fact that warming ocean temperatures are associated with the accelerated spread of a disease called withering syndrome, which may be the biggest single peril faced by the species.  

In its final decision to list black abalone, NMFS notes that the species is not alone in facing increased disease risk due to rising ocean temperatures. 

[T]here is now substantial concern among scientists and marine resource managers about the emergence of virulent diseases in marine organisms on a global scale in association with ocean warming in recent decades (e.g., Harvell et al., 1999; Harvell et al., 2002). Recent surveys of the literature suggest that the frequency of reporting of new diseases has increased for several major marine taxa, including mollusks (e.g., Ward and Lafferty, 2004).

Nor is this a phenomena confined to the oceans. As NRDC pointed out in our petition to list whitebark pine as an endangered species, rising temperatures has also led to the devastating spread of pathogens and native pests in alpine ecosystems, such as blister rust and pine beetles. 

Global warming is quickly taking its place as one of the leading threats to the world's biological diversity. But it may turn out that climate change's biggest impact to wildlife comes indirectly, in the form of rapidly spreading disease.