Nature Responds to Climate Change: Is She Warning Us to Act?
Next week at Teatown, we will begin our annual tradition of tapping sugar maple trees to collect and boil the sap to make delicious syrup. Each March, we look forward to our Annual Pancake Brunch and “Sugaring Sundays,” with a blind assurance that this seasonal event will endure forever. Nature, however, is trying to tell us a different story: she is on the move and our local sugar maple trees might just decide that Westchester County is not a suitable zip code to prosper and raise a family. The culprit is climate change.
Evidence that species are on the move came last week with the release of the National Audubon Society’s excellent report: “Birds and Climate Change, Ecological Disruption in Motion.” (Download the report here.) Audubon scientists – analyzing data collected by citizen-scientist volunteers at Christmas Bird Counts for the last 40 years – found that more than half of 305 bird species in North America have shifted their ranges northward, spending the winter on average 35 miles farther north than they did four decades ago. Some species moved significantly greater distances, up to 433 miles in the case of the Purple Finch and 316 miles for the Red-breasted Merganser. Over the 40 years covered by the study, the average January temperature increased 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The significance of the study is the large number of bird species that are on the move. Nature is responding strongly to rising temperatures — and we should be humbled that birds have been adjusting to climate change long before Al Gore and we humans noticed! So what is the problem? The rub is that not all species have the same ability to move. Think of the difference between trees and birds in their ability to move across the landscape. Not to mention that humans have isolated much of nature in parks and reserves and created geographical barriers to animals and plants. This differential ability to move will create a massive re-organization of natural communities. The worry among biologists is that species evolved together in groups or communities — and these intricate ecological connections – “the web of life” – are likely to become largely broken in the face of climate change.
No one knows for sure how shifting species ranges and the formation of new communities will affect species survival. But in face of climate change and the additional pressures of habitat fragmentation, invasives species, and increasing toxins in the environment, some scientists think it is possible that 20-40% of plants and animals face extinction by the end of the century. This is a sobering prediction because nature is the foundation for all that we do – it is the basis of building healthy, prosperous human societies.
What can we do? First, the greater and sooner we significantly lower our carbon emissions the better, because the eventual rise in global temperature caused by the greenhouse effect will be lower. Reducing our use of fossil fuels for energy use in our homes, businesses, and cars is an immediate action we can all take today. Helping nature adapt to climate change by making the land between parks more “nature friendly” and ecologically healthy is key — because species need to move across the landscape to adapt to climate change. Finally, addressing other detrimental pressures on nature (e.g. habitat destruction and invasive species) also ought to be a priority. Teatown is helping bring this kind of landscape-level, nature-friendly thinking to the Hudson Hills and Highlands. Together we can make a difference!