Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Getting Out

Nature speaks: Bug proliferation, bad weather, forest fires provide ample evidence of climate change

  • con-conchasfire-102017

    Forest fires across the Western U.S. have become more commonplace in recent years because of climate change, scientists say.

    Contributed photo

  • con-sequoia-092217

    The brown-orange trees in this photo are drought-stressed dead and dying pines in Sequoia National Park in California. Such changes in nature are becoming more frequent because of a changing climate.

    Photo by Steve Betchkal

So, you don’t believe that the Earth’s climate is changing as a direct result of human activity, even as scientists around this sweaty planet provide proof after proof?

Well, never mind what our brightest and most industrious scientific minds are saying about the topic. Maybe you’ll accept the truth right from the mouths of nature.

Does this bug you?

Raise your hand if you like mosquitoes. I don’t mean “tolerate them as organisms with a right to exist as any other,” but really like them.

That’s what I thought. Based on the lack of a show of hands, you will be displeased to know that Republican senators from Oklahoma are not the only species benefiting from climate change.

Mosquitoes and other insect pests are finding North America’s warming temperatures very accommodating and are in fact the creatures reaping the biggest benefits from global warming. 

It’s plain that bugs love heat and moisture. Warmer temperatures encourage more rapid development and allow insects to increase their seasonal breeding windows — especially in temperate climates where cold winters act as a natural suppressor. This is why insects in North America have shown detectable and undisguised range shifts over the last 50 years.

Insects have short life cycles but big effects on plant communities and humans. An explosion of insect populations could well overwhelm forests or crops — and human comfort and health.

One of the best illustrations of this is the mountain pine bark beetle, which is currently devouring the conifers of the Western U.S. 

Once tempered by winter, the insect has managed to expand at an alarming rate north through the Rockies into Canada. Millions of acres of once green pines now don an unseasonable fatal red as the beetles sweep through them. 

All that’s stopping the harmful beetles from reaching Wisconsin is the boreal forest that arcs from Alberta east to the Midwest.

Another insect that delighted in climate change was the ips. Never heard of an ips? They are a variety of beetle that likes to burrow into living wood. Pinon and Ponderosa pine trees weakened by drought in the desert southwest were feasted upon by ips until all of the trees were dead and gone. Then so were ips.

Tick tock

Even less popular than the mosquito is the tick. Ticks are arthropods favored by climate change. Like mosquitoes and gnats, ticks dig hot, wet weather.

Ticks carry and spread infectious diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I caught a nasty bout of anaplasmosis from a deer tick last year while in the Hayward area. 

Never mind the notion that a tick must be embedded for a day before it can transmit troublesome bacteria. Mine was only embedded for an hour before I removed it. 

Another commonly held belief was that ticks couldn’t survive the frigid winter temperatures that occur north of the U.S. That too has been disproved.

Not only are the ranges of ticks moving progressively farther north each year, but milder winters mean the little buggers are out earlier and longer than ever. 

Kind of makes your skin crawl, right?

Weather altered

Is it just me, or does it seem like the weather is out of whack? We experience more and longer droughts interspersed with spells of flooding. 

Extended hurricane and tornado seasons, and more of them, are hammering us. And the Western U.S. seems to be constantly burning.

If you feel the same, it’s not your imagination. According to statistics, flooding is up across most of the Midwest and heavy precipitation has risen 45 percent in Wisconsin. 

Meanwhile, instances of drought have increased drastically throughout the southwestern U.S. and in Mexico. Natural disasters in the Southeast have averaged between 33 and 45 events annually since 1980.

Days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees have also increased nationwide, pollen counts are higher than ever and as Alaska’s permafrost thaws and more Americans move to the coast, the sea continues to rise.

Timing off

Mismatch Theory is a relatively new scientific concept that examines the relationship between phenology and food cycles as impacted by climate change.

One recent study in Newfoundland found that nine species of migratory birds are not keeping up with changing climate.

The timing of their migrations is out of sync with the leafing out of forest trees in spring. That means the birds’ arrival is also out of sync with when the insects they rely on for food hatches.

If birds arrive too early they will suffer the effects of cold spells; too late and they miss out on the food supplies for their hatched young.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

My dear friend Dr. Craig Allen, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and one of the world’s foremost authorities in tree mortality, said the drought-inspired fire events across the west “are the new normal.” 

Decades of fuel suppression across America allowed the amount of burnable materials to build up on the forest floor, so when the fires hit, they burn abnormally hot and are tougher to control. Even the oldest and hardiest of trees are no match for crown fires, and places that were once centuries-old forest have been reduced to a march of shrubs, which in turn burn easily and are unable to gain a significant ecological foothold.

When the roots holding the soil in place are gone, the rains wash the soil away.

“Even without climate change in the mix,” Allen said, “this is not coming back as the forests and woodlands that they were before. It’s hard to argue that we didn’t fail.”

Climate change is likely to make success even more difficult to achieve. Our grand forests may look vastly different in the years to come.

Still not convinced? Not convinced that we need to act fast to do something about the many and monumental threats facing the planet?

What would Mother Nature have to say about that?

Betchkal is a bird expert, videographer and writer who lives in Eau Claire.


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