It's Not Just Eskimos in Bikinis

As long as we're talking about ice in distant climes, global warming seems like something that's happening elsewhere and to somebody else -- or some other set of creatures.
When we hear the term "global warming," we usually imagine collapsing Antarctic ice shelves, melting Alaskan glaciers, or perhaps starving polar bears wandering bewildered across an ice-free, alien landscape. Warnings about climate change tend to focus on the Earth's polar regions, in part because they are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the dramatic changes underway there can be easily captured and conveyed.

We may not be able to see the 80% decline in the Antarctic krill population -- the tiny, shrimp-like creatures that are a critical food source for whales, seals, and sea birds -- but we can easily see satellite photos of state-sized chunks of ice shields separating from the continent. We can grasp the enormity of planetary glacial melting simply by comparing photos of glaciers taken just a decade apart.

But as long as we're talking about ice in distant climes, global warming seems like something that's happening elsewhere and to somebody else -- or some other set of creatures.

So when you hear about global warming, the odds are good that you never think of the yellow-bellied marmot. Probably, you've never even heard of the critters, but the big rodents, common not to the distant Arctic but to Rocky Mountain meadows, have been acting like so many canaries lately -- coal-mine canaries, that is. They may be the first among many species in the Lower 48 to die off, thanks to close-to-home global warming effects that we hear little about. They are dying of confusion.

As a term, global warming is so benign-sounding -- we all like "warmth," after all -- that it masks what's actually going on. Yes, temperatures overall are rising, low-lying islands are disappearing under the sea, and epic wildfires are becoming more routine. But some places like Europe could get much colder in a globally "warmed" world, if warm ocean currents shift away from them; while across the planet, however counterintuitive this might seem, floods are likely to be as commonplace as drought.

"Climate disruption" is probably a more accurate description of what we are experiencing than mere "warming." Although the radical break in climate patterns now underway will lead to rising oceans and expanding deserts, the most insidious changes may be more subtle -- and as unnoticed as the disappearance of the marmots may be.

The intricate and precisely timed collaborations of plants, animals, birds, and insects, fine-tuned over endless thousands of years of evolution, is inevitably short-circuited when the weather goes whacky over periods of time that are the geological equivalent of a wink. When environmental events and biological events that once fit together lose their synchronicity, the consequence can be extinction. Even the Pentagon realizes that, if dependable local weather patterns become erratic, chaos can ensue as, for instance, crops begin to fail. Some of the less adaptable wild creatures, great and small, who share our American backyards are already coping with the kind of eco-havoc we can as yet only imagine for ourselves. For them, a more accurate description of what is happening might be Eco-Topsy-Turvy or, perhaps, Climate Helter-Skelter.

Take that marmot, for example. The yellow-bellied marmot's hibernation habits are guided by ancient circadian rhythms that are cued by seasonal changes in light and temperature. Like their cousin Punxsutawney Phil, the marmots awake from winter hibernation in their underground burrows and surface when they sense that the earth is warming. In recent years, conservationists have been reporting that marmots are emerging from their holes a month sooner than expected. But if the ground warms before deep snowpack melts, which is now often the case, the emerging marmots cannot get to their food and they starve.

For the purple larkspur, which shares the marmot's meadow, the problem is the opposite. When spring temperatures grow warmer ever earlier, snow cover melts earlier as well and the larkspur, one of the first plants to bloom in American alpine meadows, puts out vulnerable buds weeks too soon -- for even if the snow cover has mostly melted, frost remains a serious threat in early spring and a single cold night will wipe out those tender buds. No buds, no seeds. No seeds, eventually no larkspurs.

No larkspurs, no nectar for queen bumblebees which produce worker bees for hives and no larkspur blossoms for hummingbirds. When pollinators like bees and hummingbirds disappear from a landscape that depends on them to carry out its annual renewal, a cascade of ill-effects ripples through the ecosystem.

Changes in snow patterns also present wolves with an unusual challenge. The re-introduced wolf, that symbol of our determination to restore the health of ecosystems that long suffered their loss, uses snow as an ally in chasing down and eating elk. The elk are weakened by starvation in winter and cannot as easily escape the nimble wolves through dense snowpack or across sheets of slippery ice. In Yellowstone this past winter, snow and ice were sparse and the elk generally got away from the wolves. It wasn't just wolves that went hungry. Other animals and birds, including endangered Grizzly bears, depend on sharing carcasses the wolves leave behind to make it through the winter, so they also fared poorly.

When there is less snowpack to melt and rivers are thin, endangered and diminished stocks of salmon have less habitat and less mobility. In addition, salmon spawning cycles are adapted to the rhythms of local stream-flows as they have been experienced over tens of thousands of years. Adult salmon return from the ocean to the mouths of rivers to begin their spawning runs upstream just as those rivers are peaking and conditions for swimming are optimal. Or should be.

When warmer spring temperatures thaw snowpack too soon, rivers peak earlier and the mature salmon arrive too late to make the journey up shallow rivers depleted by drought (and by what we draw off to keep exotic lawn grasses and golf greens vibrant). No journey, no spawning, and soon enough, no salmon. As conservation biologists have shown us, salmon are the glue that holds the food-webs and nutrient cycles of Northwest ecosystems together. Goodbye evolution, hello helter-skelter.

A report co-written by University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan and University of Colorado ecologist Hector Galbraith for the Pew Center for Global Climate recently assessed 40 scientific studies linking climate change with observed ecological changes. A growing body of evidence, they found, shows that sudden climate change is not just about Eskimos in bikinis. Significant changes are underway even in temperate regions. The geographic ranges of many plant and animal species are either contracting altogether or shifting northwards, causing species like the Red Fox to compete with the Arctic Fox for food and territory.

Flowering patterns, breeding behaviors, and the timing of migrations are all undergoing change. The distribution of plants, insects, animals, and even soil bacteria is shifting rapidly in response to recent alterations in weather patterns. The question is: Can plants and creatures adapt fast enough to survive such rapid changes? Can evolution run on "fast-forward"?

If trying to evolve at warp speed while Mother Nature is having hot flashes isn't enough, birds and animals in the Lower 48 are also struggling to adapt to such changes within habitats that have been drastically reduced, fragmented, and often contaminated by human development over the past century. First, wildlife was thrown off the mother-ship; now the lifeboats, the isolated remnant habitats left to them, are being battered by fickle weather. No doubt the extinction wave already underway, thanks to man-made assaults on wild habitat, will only accelerate as climate disruption kicks in, swamping those last remaining wild refuges.

On land, the powerful impact of habitat degradation and loss makes it hard for conservation scientists to sort out which wildlife behavioral changes are due to ongoing stress and which may be the result of sudden climate change. All this is made even more complex by the fact that species adapting to climate change face man-made limitations and barriers as they try to compensate by moving northward or to higher ground. Their potential escape routes are regularly blocked by roads, fences, buildings, and human activity.

On the sea, however, where man-made barriers are fewer, changes have been tracked and measured that are clearly linked to climate change. In the coastal waters of Monterey Bay where the ranges of northern and southern Pacific fish overlap, for example, scientists have tracked changing species distribution. Northern species are heading further north while southern species have greatly increased their dominance in the bay. Typically, Humboldt squid, which until recently ranged from Southern California to South America, have now been spotted as far north as Alaska.

Ocean studies confirm that species are responding as best they can to the changes in their historical habitats and food webs. In the ocean, as on land, when species overlap and invade one another's territories, ecological relationships between interdependent species are broken and chaos can follow. Again, it becomes a helter-skelter world.

Soil itself -- the ground we walk on -- is also a habitat that is shaped by climate regimes and patterns. Berkeley professor John Harte's research shows that, across the West, sagebrush is replacing mountain meadows because of warmer temperatures at higher altitudes. Mountain meadows are lush with diverse grasses and wildflowers. The litter from wildflowers -- the leaves, flowers, and stems that fall into the soil each autumn -- is easy for microorganisms to digest. Sage litter is thinner and less diverse. It makes poor soil. Warming will also result in accelerated evaporation from soils. Microorganism and insect pests that can survive the winter in drier, warmer soils will flourish and do more damage to crops and trees. The bark beetle, for instance, thrives in drought and is devastating Western forests, while generating more dead timber to fuel future catastrophic fires.

Humans are not exempt. If ecosystem relationships become disconnected and ecological processes break down, we will eventually suffer as well. Adaptability and the inclination to take over neighboring yards when ours are used up or fall apart can keep us from consequences for only so long. Although we live in a culture that encourages and enables us to think, feel, and act as if we were above and beyond nature (or, perhaps, beside it -- nature being what we visit by car on weekends), we are, in fact, embedded in the natural/physical world. Like it or not, the fluids that sustain our lives come from watersheds. Our food is a synthesis of soil, sunlight, and rain. We depend on the biological diversity, ecological processes, and powerful global currents of wind and water that are the operating systems of all life on Earth. Signs that these operating systems are faltering should be a wake-up call for us to begin real planning to kick our fossil-fuel addiction, while creating laws, policies, and projects that aim at ecological preservation and restoration.

But we don't act and doubt reigns supreme. The cynical Bushites say they want to make a culture that values life while they sow whatever doubt they can about the reality of global climate disruption. Worse yet, they are intent on obstructing the rest of the world from taking collaborative steps to reduce human influence on the planetary climate that is the very basis of all life, including that of fetuses and persistently vegetative legislators.

Because the patterns we are trying to understand are so vast in scale, so long in scope, and fluctuate chaotically over time, it is hard to tease out trends from the variations that are possible. Could the dramatic climate changes we are experiencing just be another spike in a long, spiky record of the earth's climate? Maybe significant numbers of us can continue to believe this a while longer; but as the scientific evidence mounts and man-made influences seem ever more likely to be the culprits, the fear that we could cross a kind of climate tipping-point with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth will become more palpable. Yes, there are unknowns in the global climate prediction game, but does Russian Roulette make more sense if you can show that there is only one bullet in the chamber instead of two?

If inaction risks drought, flood, monster storms, pestilence, epidemics, extinctions, ecological dysfunction, refugees, war, and more squalor (as even the Pentagon suspects may be the case), not to mention all that potential underwater real estate in Manhattan, Miami, and New Orleans, then we would be prudent and wise to take precautionary actions now. That we continue to ignore the signs all around us is not just a political failure, though it certainly is that. It is undoubtedly also a failure of empathy and awareness. I suspect we will not find the political will to stop the damage we are doing until we begin to see ourselves within the picture frame and realize that it is in our self-evident self-interest to act boldly and soon.

So, get in the picture. Put on those Ray-Bans and stand in the purple mountain meadow next to that yellow-bellied marmot -- the one blinking in the snow-reflected sun. Face the camera. Say "cheese!" Now that's a shot you can show your grandchildren when they ask you, "What's a marmot?" -- or "What's a meadow?"
Chip Ward is a political activist who is organizing resistance to the dumping of nuclear waste in Utah's deserts. He is the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Shearwater/Island Press) and is the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System.
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