What Humans Might Learn from Marmots and Picas

Berkeley Professor Barnosky’s Harrowing ‘Heatstroke’: Changing Concepts of Nature in a Warmer Atmosphere

In the summer of 1988, as Yellowstone National Park burned and congressional hearings on global warming were being held in a sweltering Washington D.C., Tony Barnosky was digging into the floor of a Colorado cave.

Traveling back in time, as he wrote in his new book, Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming, Barnosky was uncovering ecosystems long gone – each shaped by changes in Earth’s climate.

Over many years, the U.C. Berkeley paleoecologist has studied how climate change has altered evolutionary and ecological patterns around the world.

“It became clear to me … that changes that are spurred by climate change are natural,” Barnosky said recently in a telephone interview. “But there’s a certain range of variation of natural climate change that in fact we’re exceeding now.”

Also see: 

Federal Government Re-thinking
Climate’s Impacts on Domestic Wildlands

and

A few resources for journalists


 

That’s hardly news to journalists who cover the science behind the globe’s current warming climate. But some of the ideas Barnosky advocates in his book will appear new to many.

Heatstroke offers a harrowing look into how the rapid pace of current climate change, combined with habitat fragmentation and other more direct human insults on nature, are forever altering ecosystems and threatening the survival of myriad species.

His analysis suggests that our very conception of nature, and the pains that conservationists take to preserve it, will require fundamental changes as the world warms.

A Roadmap for Conservation in Coming Decades

Barnosky’s book concludes with some general proposals for how humanity might approach conservation in coming decades.

One is to create highly managed wildlife preserves specifically designed to save species threatened elsewhere by rapidly changing ecosystems that can no longer support their survival.

Another is to ensure the continued preservation of the globe’s wildest places, uncorrupted by human incursion – to preserve the intangible value of wilderness and provide a barometer of how humanity is affecting the globe’s most pristine places.

The first proposal in particular will require a sea change in the way humans think about nature in an age of rapid and destructive climate change.

“Up until now, we’ve sort of considered nature as one blanket thing, where if we preserve a big nature reserve, we’re saving everything we want to save,” Barnosky said. “We’re saving biodiversity, we’re saving this feeling of wilderness, and we’re saving ecosystem services that you get out of those kinds of places.”

“The problem is that those places are actually too few-enough and too far in between enough now. As we change the climate, it’s going to affect a lot of the species in those places and cause many of those species not to be able to live in the places we’re trying to preserve.”

Most of Barnosky’s book lays out a fascinating and ultimately depressing survey of how rapidly rising temperatures threaten the survival of species from Yellowstone and Yosemite to Oregon’s coastal waters, the Colorado Rockies, Kruger National Park in South Africa, and the Amazon rainforest.

Rather than merely a chronicle of case studies, however, there’s a lot in Heatstroke that can give journalists some solid background. In Chapter 2, “Nature’s Heartbeat,” there’s a terrific overview of what drives Earth’s climate cycles over various time scales.

Barnosky also offers first-hand views into how paleoclimate scientists work in the field – the down and dirty, on-your-knees labor of scraping for fossils in the ground.

It’s not hard to understand generally why a warming climate is changing ecosystems – why it’s melting sea ice and making it harder for polar bears to hunt for seals, for example.

But the subtleties of how our natural world is changing are not so obvious. For journalists covering the ongoing story of climate change, they’re nevertheless important – and they can enrich and deepen reporting.

Barnosky offers a glimpse into some of these subtleties in Heatstroke, and one particularly compelling story shows how life is changing for marmots in the Colorado Rockies.

‘Eye View of Climate’ from Perspective of a Marmot


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Barnosky writes about the marmot’s ‘eye view of climate.’

Right at the beginning of his book, Barnosky writes about the marmot’s “eye view of climate.”

The essential story is that warming temperatures are causing marmots to awake from hibernation about a month earlier than they had in the 1970s. While winter temperatures are growing warmer and triggering the marmot’s hibernation to end early, there’s still too much snow around and not enough vegetation.

And that means the marmots, awakened prematurely from hibernation emaciated and starving, are popping their heads from their burrows and finding little to eat.

As Barnosky writes: “The delicate balance of each element in a marmot’s life – a climate-controlled burrow, hibernation, a warm-air wake-up call, melting snow and vegetation growth … hadn’t failed in nearly a million years.”

Some animals, including the pika, a short-eared cousin of the rabbit, are disappearing from some regions because temperatures are just getting too hot. “Climate Watch,” a series by KQED public radio in San Francisco, has reported on this animal.

In early May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to move forward with a review of the American pika as a potential candidate for the Endangered Species Act.

Barnosky draws a distinction between animals like the pika that appear to be directly affected by warming and others like marmots, which appear to be affected more subtly but no less significantly.


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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the American pika is a potential candidate for the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s easy enough to envision … a species like the pika, which needs to exist in temperatures below x degrees, otherwise it’s too hot and their physiology can’t take it and they die,” Barnosky said.

“That’s a direct effect, but it’s even more worrisome that a lot of species just depend on some very tight synchronies between their life history and climate.”

Heatstroke introduces readers to a wide range of scientists studying how climate change is altering ecosystems around the world. They include:

  • Terry Root, who discovered a rule that recognizes that basal metabolic rate predicts the northernmost extent of many passerine bird species – the common group of perching birds that includes wrens, sparrows, jays, mockingbirds and cardinals, among others.
  • J. Alan Pounds, who has studied how the pathogenic fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis – thriving in a warming climate of Central American mountains – is killing frogs there. Science writer Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about the fungus, also known as Bd, in a May 25 New Yorker magazine article in which she discusses evidence for a sixth mass extinction – driven in significant part by climate change.
  • Jeremy Jackson, who has studied how breaks in ocean food chains, many of which are driven by a combination of overfishing, pollution, and warming ocean temperatures, are leading to a proliferation of sea grass and algae – a condition Jackson refers to as “the rise of slime.”
  • Jim Patton and Craig Moritz, who have re-traced biological surveys from the early 20th century of wildlife in Yosemite and found how warming has altered animal habitats since then (see Oct. 9, 2008 Berkeley news release and Science Matters article). Numerous stories have been written about the so-called Grinnell Resurvey Project. Among them have been reports from the Sacramento Bee and High Country News.
  • Elizabeth Hadly, who has studied how animals in the Yellowstone area responded to past climate changes, the Medieval Warm Period among them, before humans decided to set aside the land as protected wilderness. Hadly has found that a core group of species were resistant to past climate changes, preserving the relationships between them in hardy and long-lasting ecosystems. “Those findings drive home the point that the climate-related changes we are seeing today, even among common species, are truly out of the ordinary,” Barnosky wrote in Heatstroke. “… What is disturbing is that formerly common and persistent species are disappearing from where they use to be … which means their ecological niches are shriveling up and disappearing.”
  • Joseph Ogutu and Norman Owen-Smith, who set out in 2003 to search for correlations between the waxing and waning of large animals in the Kruger National Park in South Africa and El Niño and La Niña cycles in the Pacific. They found that fluctuations in populations of kudu, waterbuck, eland, warthog, roan antelope, sable antelope and tsessebe did not track rainfall patterns driven by El Niño/La Niña. “Instead, all seven species … declined dramatically around 1988 … when rainfall during the dry season was abnormally low while global and local temperatures began to increase,” Barnosky wrote. “… There simply was less and less water to sustain adequate green forage during the dry season, and the animals couldn’t move outside the park to find the green vegetation they needed.”

The fact that many wildland areas are hemmed in by civilization makes the current warming period different this time. It’s a key premise of Barnosky’s prescription for performing triage of the world’s ecosystems.

Assisted Migration ‘A Bad Practice’… But Whose Has Time Come?

The idea of forming wildlife preserves, which would be filled with species endangered elsewhere, is bold and controversial, Barnosky acknowledges. Assisted migration (see articles from Nature, New York Times, and Wikipedia.org) is not without serious risks, as new species are introduced into areas not accustomed to their presence.

“For as long as I can remember in ecology, moving a species from one place to another was considered a bad idea,” Barnosky said. “(But) now there are actually working groups who are talking about it being a good idea … to take a species from a climatically endangered habitat and moving to a habitat where they can survive.”

“It’s a very double-edged sword, and the question that we haven’t had to face yet, but we very well might have to face, is if a species is on its way to extinction and will go extinct without relocating it somewhere else, how and where or should we even do that?”

What’s required, Barnosky said, is a re-thinking of what conservation biology means – and that discussion hasn’t yet occurred in a widespread way.

“The way we’ve done conservation biology isn’t going to work very well with global warming, because once you pull the climate out from under these species, the only choice to keep a lot of them around and keep these ecosystems going is to be some heavier management, which is the antithesis of what we want for preserving the wild aspect.”

Establishing wildland preserves alone will not be enough, because doing that merely creates “elaborate zoos,” Barnosky cautions.

In tandem with highly managed preserves, humans must ensure that true wildlands are protected, places akin to our national parks and remote places across the globe.

And society needs to think more seriously about the value of wildlife corridors, to allow species – where possible – to migrate to cooler climates, Barnosky said.

One example of how corridors can be built is the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative – which is working to (in the organization’s own words) “ensure that the Yellowstone to Yukon region retains enough connected, well-managed and good-quality wildlife habitat so that animals can safely travel between protected areas (such as national parks) as they roam in search of food and mates.”

The region covers 502,000 square miles and stretches nearly 2,000 miles across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

In the United States, managing the nation’s last wildlands – specifically its national parks – is going to require some forward-thinking policies that depart from prior perspectives on what it means for a place to be wild, Barnosky said.

For example, the landmark Leopold Report, which in the 1960s called for American national parks to be restored as close as possible to their state before Europeans arrived on the continent, doesn’t address today’s realities. One passage in the report encapsulated how outdated the report has become:

“As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man,” the report said. “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”

“That’s obviously not going to work anymore,” Barnosky said.


 

A few resources for journalists

Ecological Impacts of Climate Change, by the National Academies

See also “Signs From Earth” blog by National Geographic Editor Dennis Dimick

Win-Win Ecology: How The Earth’s Species Can Survive In The Midst of Human Enterprise, by Mike Rosenweig

The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable, by Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison

Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute


 

Federal Government Re-thinking
Climate’s Impacts on Domestic Wildlands

The federal government has acknowledged the pressures that climate change is placing on national parks and other protected areas, and it’s developed educational resources to inform the general public about how warming temperatures are changing the nation’s protected lands.

In partnership with the U.S. National Park Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System, EPA has prepared an educational program that rangers and outdoor guides can use to educate the 365 million annual visitors to the nation’s national parks and wildlife refuges.

The toolkit, called “Climate Change, Wildlife and Wildlands, provides rangers and naturalist guides information on warming impacts in four regions of the country: the Western Mountains and Plains, including Glacier National Park; the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest; Chesapeake Bay and Assateague Island on the mid-Atlantic Coast; and the Everglades and South Florida, including the Florida Keys.

Resources, updated as recently as last November, include videos, trail cards and a CD-ROM with digital brochures, fact sheets, and PowerPoint presentations that rangers and guides can show visitors.

In the case study on the Western Mountains and Plains, the agency recognizes the value of wildlife corridors that would allow animals to migrate to cooler latitudes.

“Conservation biologists note that, in most cases, park boundaries cannot be expanded to continue protecting species that leave the area as the climate changes,” the case study says.

“They recommend that governments and nonprofit agencies establish wildlife habitat corridors to connect parks with other protected habitats for plants and wildlife. Corridors could be designed to allow protected species to shift their range if their habitat changes. If personnel in parks and other protected areas worked with scientists to come up with long-term management plans and strategies, then together they could mitigate the future impacts of global warming in protected areas.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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