Kiss Proteas Goodbye?

In all the coverage of the study published a few days ago suggesting that the effects of climate change will be “irreversible” for 1,000 years, and that several parts of the world will suffer “dust bowl-like” conditions due to decreasing rainfall, I haven’t seen anyone point out that the affected regions include some of the “hottest” of the Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, the so-called mediterranean-climate regions.

The regions mentioned in the paper include southern Europe, South Africa, southwestern North America, and western Australia,  meaning big trouble for at least four of the five mediterranean-climate regions, which cover just one to two percent of the land surface but harbor about 20 percent of the plant species on the planet. The most distinctive plant communities that have evolved in the cool, wet winters, warm to hot, dry summers, and poor soils of these areas are shrublands—the fynbos of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, maquis and garrigue in the Mediterranean Basin, Australian mallee, and Californian chaparral, as well as Chilean matorral.

Among the unique plants found in these regions are proteas, the signature plants of the Cape Floral Kingdom, whose spectacular, often large blooms, with vase-shaped bracts surrounding cone-like clusters of slender, curving, tube-shaped flowers, are critical to the worldwide floral trade. Proteas are named for the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his form at will. But many of the plants won’t be able to change fast enough to cope with anticipated climate change. More than half of all protea species are already threatened with extinction. Habitat loss alone is decimating protea populations, and when climate change is factored in, the situation is all the more dire.

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