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Global warming: Even cacti can’t take the heat

PARIS (AFP) – Sixty per cent of cactus species will wind up in less hospitable climates over the coming decades as global warming sets in, according to new research challenging the long-held assumption the iconic desert plants will thrive with more heat.

By 2070, up to 90 per cent could be threatened with extinction due to climate change, habitat loss and other stressors, triple the current percentage, scientists reported in Nature Plants.

Some 1,500 species of cacti spread across the Americas live in varying climes, ranging from sea-level deserts to the high Andes mountains, from bone-dry ecosystems to humid tropical forests.

Biodiversity hotspots rich in species and numbers include central Mexico and the Brazilian
Atlantic Forest.

To test the notion that cacti will benefit from a warmer and more drought-prone world, researchers led by Michiel Pillet from the University of Arizona examined data on more than 400 species and ran models projecting how they would fare at mid-century and beyond under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. The findings “paint a more pessimistic future”, according to the study, published recently.

Currently, the main threat to cacti is expanding agriculture, along with land degradation, biodiversity loss and harvesting for various uses.

Even without climate change, cacti “is one of the most endangered groups of organisms on the planet,” with more than 30 per cent classified as at risk of extinction, the authors note.

Under a moderate emissions scenario in line with current policies, global warming will soon be a significant threat as well.

“Our results suggest that climate change will become a primary driver of cactus extinction risk, with 60 to 90 per cent of species assessed negatively impacted” by global warming, the researchers reported.

Within four or five decades, some 25 per cent of cacti species could experience unfamiliar climates over a quarter of their current range.

Earlier studies show impaired photosynthesis – the process by which plants use sunlight to make food from CO2 and water – with only two degrees Celsius of global warming. Earth’s average surface temperature, including oceans, is already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than preindustrial times, and about 1.7 degrees Celsius warmer over land only.