Articles

North American prairies most sensitive to climate change

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016) - Map of vegetation sensitivity

This map from Seddon et al. (2016), just published in Nature, depicts sensitivity to vegetation production as a result of climate change. Red areas represent areas where natural vegetation communities are more likely to be impacted by climate change. With South Dakota, Nebraska, and the rest of the Great Plains in an area of strong temperature and precipitation gradients, we are also in a hot zone in terms of potential impacts of climate change on our ecosystems. Click for a larger view.

Nature this week published a very good paper about ecosystem sensitivity to climate change, with maps that portray ecosystems most likely to be impacted by changes in water availability, changing temperatures, or changes in cloudiness.  One of the paper’s main discussion points is that the heart of North America, irght here in the Great Plains, is one “hotspot” of climate change impacts.  For the general public and news outlets, it’s typically things like sea-level rise, or extreme temperature changes occurring in the Arctic and northern latitudes that tend to get noticed. However, as this study indicates, even here in the Great Plains, ecosystems are in peril due to the effects of climate change.

Given the obvious north-south temperature gradient and the obvious east-west precipitation gradient in the Great Plains, this probably isn’t too surprising.  I grew up in southern Nebraska, and after a (thankfully) short stint in the Washington D.C. area after college, we moved to South Dakota, where we have now been for 24 years.  We are in southern South Dakota, a mere 4-hour drive to where I grew up.  When moving here, in terms of weather, I was expecting similar conditions to how I grew up, given the short distance.  In the summer, that’s largely true, as summer temperatures are more uniform across the Plains, even as you move north and south.  In the winter however, I quickly found out that in just a 200-250 mile distance to the north, temperatures are substantially colder.  We’re having incredibly warm February weather right now (hello climate change!!), with a temp of 54 yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Back in southern Nebraska, a mere 200+ miles away? Temps reached the lower 70s.

The Great Plains are also marked by a very obvious, very strong gradient in precipitation.   There’s a reason the forests of the eastern U.S. pretty much stop once they get to the Great Plains, as precipitation strongly decreases as you move from east to west.  South Dakota itself is a great example, as “East River” (east of the Missouri River) is primarily dryland farming, mostly corn and soybeans.  As you reach the middle part of the state, precipitation is significantly lower, corn and soybeans start to disappear, and you get into the dry grasslands that make up most of “West River” South Dakota.

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016)

This image from the Nature paper shows what’s most likely to impact native ecosystems: 1) Water availability, 2) Temperature increases, or 3) changes in cloudiness. The strong blue shades in the Great Plains indicates that it’s water availability that’s going to strongly impact our ecosystems, due to both precipitation changes and increased evaporation as temperatures rise. Click for a larger view.

In the Great Plains, we are sitting in a strong transition zone, both in terms of temperature and moisture availability. Thus, while most folks may think of the Great Plains as a boring, simple landscape of grass and crops, as this study shows, we’re also an area that’s likely to be hammered by the effects of climate change. The results of the paper show that it’s not necessarily the increased temperatures themselves that are going to strongly affect ecosystems, it’s water availability.  It’s not just how much rain that falls in an area that drives ecosystem and vegetation response, it’s how temperature and precipitation interact to affect overall availability of water resources.  The warmer the temperature, the greater evaporation that occurs, and the less water that’s available for vegetation.  The Nature paper indicates that the ecosystems (natural vegetation) of the Great Plains likely can handle the increased temperature in isolation, but combined changes in precipitation and temperature will result in water availability changes that could dramatically affect natural ecosystems in the region.

There’s no doubt that the quite (politically) conservative Great Plains of the U.S. is a hotbed of climate change denial.  As the results of this paper show, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Great Plains residents to deny climate change is impacting their region.  I’m almost positive that it’s not the effects on natural vegetation that will “flip the switch” in the minds of current climate change skeptics in the region.  However, as change becomes more and more pronounced, there’s no doubt the economics of the region, particularly the agricultural sector, will be strongly impacted.

Nothing seems to get a man/woman to “believe” than a direct impact on their pocketbook. That impact may be coming much sooner than most in the Great Plains would ever suspect.

 

 

Science “Debates” – Not a “debate” when the other is uninformed

Sick Earth

I recently saw a study that showed 40% of people in the world have never even heard of “climate change”. What’s worse to me than the uninformed? People who have HEARD of climate change, but choose to ignore the science and instead focus on personal belief, religion, politics, or business interests.

As a scientist, there’s little that irks me more than “deniers”.  Given that I work on issues that are related to climate change, I particularly have little patience for climate change losers skeptics who choose to get their “science” from Fox News talking heads, politicians or business people with a monetary interest in denying climate change, or other such “reliable” sources. Similar losers skeptics are also obviously out there who seem to feel personally affronted on the WELL established field of evolution.  In both cases, these losers skeptics ignore all real empirical evidence, and go with either 1) manufactured and false evidence, or 2) personal or religious belief.

I’m sorry, but if you’re one of these losers skeptics, don’t bother trying to get into any kind of debate out here on my blog.  I’m a scientist.  I deal with empirical evidence.  I deal with reality.  It’s foolish to even try to debate someone who is completely uniformed, or even worse, is purposely pushing misinformation as part of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

So, “Doug” and others…If you have something REAL to contribute on a topic, I welcome your input on my blog.  FYI, pointing to targeted “skeptic” websites doesn’t count as “real” information.  What’s the point of continuing any debate?  I can point to empirical evidence and the vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific literature.  What’s the point of arguing with someone who provides links to fantasy-land “skeptic” websites with no scientific backing?  It’s akin to debating the Big Bang with my two cocker spaniels.

In short, science debates are more than welcome out here. If you’re not going to even attempt to stay grounded in the real world, take your trolling to another blog.  You will be blocked here, saving all of us valuable time.

Global Warming hits South Dakota

Budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus

A sign of global warming? Budgies hanging out with House Sparrows in rural South Dakota. I feel sorry for the guy actually, given his anticipated life span here.

As a scientist, I don’t have much patience for global warming “skeptics”.  The science, like most science, has uncertainties, but there’s no doubt that 1) the climate is warming overall, and 2) man is to blame.  I do get a little upset though with news stories that attribute specific events to climate change.  For example, overall, yes, models indicate there will be increased frequency of severe weather events, but it’s hard to specifically attribute the current California drought or an individual hurricane to climate change.

With that said…for people who have been in the same geographic area for decades, I would imagine there are many astute folks who have noticed changes in the climate, be it more precipitation, an earlier spring, or milder winters.  For us here in South Dakota?  There are CLEAR signs of global warming. In fact, the climate has warmed so much here, that Australian bird species are setting up shop in the state.

This photo is of a Budgerigard (“Budgie”) hanging out on a fence post. This is just east of Brandon, the town where I live, near Beaver Creek Nature Area.  I had to do a double-take when I saw him, but it’s hard to miss that bright green color that no other bird around here comes close to matching.  This was at a small rural home, where the Budgie was hanging out with a bunch of House Sparrows.

An escapee?  Or a sign of climate change?  CLEARLY it’s the latter.  It’s only a matter of time before other Australia species begin showing up in South Dakota.  Koalas munching on invasive Eucalyptus trees on the plains?  Kangaroos hopping around the Black Hills?  Dingos prowling through city streets?  THIS is the future we face as South Dakotans, thanks to climate change.  The budgie sighting is just the beginning…

The Colbert Report – I’ve officially “made it”

Colbert Report - Baird's Sparrow photo

I’ve made the big time! My Baird’s Sparrow photo being shown during an episode of the Colbert Report.

As someone recently made me aware of, before shutting down as Stephen Colbert left the show, the Colbert Report used one of my photos on their show!  OK, it was just in a very tangential sense, with no direct mention of the photographer or anything, but still…cool to see something of yours pop up unexpectedly on a show like the Colbert Report!

The context was typical Colbert satirizing negative impacts of oil production in North Dakota on the habitat and wildlife.  I had done work looking at the impacts of land use change and climate on bird populations in the U.S., and once the paper was published, it got some play in the press, including, evidently, on CBS This Morning.  The Colbert Report used a clip from the CBS This Morning show that included my photo of a Baird’s Sparrow.

I often run across my photos at conferences and the like, as people just grab bird photos from the web when doing scientific presentations.  I also run across them on occasion elsewhere, but it is still cool to see it on a venue like the Colbert Report.

“Arrogant” to think man can change the Earth?

Photo of Cruz Bay on St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Virgin” it is not, as it is about as unnatural a place as you can go.

One of my pet peeve lines from politicians and business people who are climate change deniers…that it is “arrogant” to think that human beings can have such a huge impact on the Earth. It is usually meant to pander to those with a religious bent, as it is often said hand in hand with comments about only “God” being able to affect that kind of change. Ridiculous, of course, when you see the astounding effects man has had on the planet.

Our effect on the planet is something you are constantly reminded of, no matter where you live. For me it was recently reinforced while on vacation. We took a family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have never vacationed in the Caribbean, and even after researching things to death, it’s still always a new experience when you go somewhere for the first time. There are certainly some great things to do and see there (more posts on birds there will follow!), but the big impression I have after our first visit? It’s colored with sadness over what things may have once been like there, as compared to now.

You of course have the visible human footprint.  We were on St. John’s Island, but flew through St. Thomas before ferrying across. Over half of St. John’s is covered by National Park, the population is one-tenth that of St. Croix or St. Thomas. St. John’s is generally considered the more quiet and unspoiled island. There are certainly fancy, well kept up parts, but there is also a lot of very run down and impoverished areas. There is no central trash collection on St. John’s, instead there are what have turned into “drive by” trash containers where people (quite literally!) throw their trash, often from a moving car.  It seems about half the trash actually makes the bin. Government seems ineffective, with incredibly high crime on St. Thomas and St. Croix (better on St.

John’s) and poor roads and services the norm. Junk is found scattered around many parts of the islands, from abandoned cars and buildings to the good ol’ plastic bottles and bags you find junking up every other part of the planet

Beyond the visible human footprint though is the altered ecology of the area.  Even on the “quiet” island of St. John’s there are chickens and goats running around everywhere.  “Wild” donkeys are the largest animals, followed by introduced deer. Mongoose, introduced to control introduced rats, have devastated native birds and other animals (as have rats).  As a birder there are certainly some great new birds I found there, but the bird community is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago, thanks to habitat alteration, introduced bird species, hunting, and the introduction of the mongoose and other animals.

We we had a blast snorkeling the beautiful waters around the island. Back on land though, it’s not exactly a natural, lush, island paradise.

Living in eastern South Dakota amongst the vast fields of corn and soybeans, you realize just how much of an impact man has on the Earth   Sadly you see the same devastating impact even in an area such as St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.  Multiply those effects for every other spot on the planet that people are found, and you quickly see the only “arrogance” comes from blowhard politicians who try to use any excuse they can to 1) get re-elected and 2) pander to short-term, money-driven interests.

Arrogance indeed…

Predicting that next invasion of winter finches

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll, one of several “northern finch” species that sporadically invade the conterminous U.S. With this study, perhaps those irruptions could be predicted in the future.

It was 2 winters ago that we had an incredible redpoll invasion.  I’d never even had one in my yard before, and we’d lived in South Dakota for 20 years.  However, in the winter of 2013/2014, we had Common Redpolls around for several months.  A real thrill when one, and then another, Hoary Redpoll showed up at my feeders and stayed for a couple of weeks.

Such events are always a surprise, and it’s not just Redpolls.  Both Red and White-winged Crossbills are equally unpredictable winter invaders across the U.S., as are Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeaks.  It was generally understood that large movements southward in the winter were due to poor seed crops for pines and spruces further north.  A new study from the University of Utah attempts to explain the winter invasions, based on climatic variables. First, the study finds that favorable climate patterns tend to shift across the continent. When one region is favorable to seed production, other parts of the continent are more likely to have unfavorable conditions for seed production, resulting in periodic movements in birds as they key in on areas with the most food resources.

The other climate finding is that it may be possible to predict irruptions to south up to two years in advance!  Seed production itself tends to be correlated with favorable conditions 2 or 3 years PRIOR to the actual growing season.  So, for example, if 2015 has unfavorable climate conditions in much of Canada, it may mean reduced seed production in 2017, resulting an increased likelihood of a southward irruption of northern finches. One of the things I love about birding is the total unpredictability, as you never know what you may see when you head out, but it would be cool to be able to anticipate a great winter finch season.

One final aspect of the work I like…they relied very heavily on eBird data.  A GREAT resource, but one that really isn’t being used for research nearly as much as other, more established monitoring programs like the Breeding Bird Survey.  If found the eBird data to be invaluable for the bird/climate/land-use study I published, and I think you’ll see more papers like this finch study use eBird data in the coming years.

%d bloggers like this: