The Butterfly Effect: Early Spring Could Lead To Wildlife Population Declines

Photo credit: Carol Boggs

A chain of events caused by climate change has led to a decline in butterfly populations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, researchers at Stanford University recently found.

The study, published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters, could be prescient in determining the long-lasting effects of climate change on many of the world’s species.

As climate change leads to an early spring, the snowmelt caused by the warmer temperatures on the Rocky Mountains decreases the number of summer wildflowers. Fewer flowers, of course, mean less nectar available to butterflies.

In the researchers’ tests, the more nectar female butterflies ate, the more eggs they laid. Therefore, less available nectar led to fewer butterflies being born and, consequently, population declines, they concluded.

If climate change could have such a dramatic impact on butterfly populations, could similar cascading effects be seen in other wildlife species?

It’s quite likely, scientists say, because of the close interconnection among species within an ecosystem.

For instance, earlier snowmelt’s effect on flowers also impacts bees , which pollinate many of the plants that other species rely on for nutrition.

All of these studies serve to remind us of the wide-reaching impacts of climate change.

“Long-term studies such as ours are important to understanding the ‘ecology of place,’ and the effects of weather and possible climate change on population numbers,” says David Inouye, co-author of the paper. “This research is critical to assessing the broader effects of weather on an ever-changing Earth.”



Climate Change Occurring Too Quickly For Wildlife To Adapt

Species have been adapting to climate change – manmade or otherwise – since the beginning of their existence. However, a new study suggests that changes to Earth’s climate and the resulting effects on wildlife habitat are occurring too quickly for species to respond.

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, its magnitude and rate are occurring much faster than over the past 300 millennia – a period that includes three ice ages. In fact, between now and 2100, climate change will be dramatic enough to require species to evolve at a rate 100 times faster than has been proven possible.

The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers and published in the scientific journal PLoS Onefocused on North American rattlesnakes.

The researchers determined that the rattlesnakes migrated an average of just 2.3 meters annually over the past 320,000 years and that their tolerance to climate has evolved about 100 to 1,000 times more slowly. These findings, the researchers said, show that migration has been the only way rattlesnakes have adapted to climate changes, at least in the recent past.

“We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species’  ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years,” said Michelle Lawing, lead author of the paper. “This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Using climate-prediction models for the next 90 years, the researchers found that the rattlesnakes’ ranges would be displaced by 430 meters to 2,400 meters per year, thus indicating that the snakes would be unable to move fast enough to keep up with the changes to its habitat.

Although this particular study focused on only one species, the researchers say that because rattlesnakes depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures, the species is representative of how climate change affects many forms of life on the planet. A warming – or drastically altered – climate, therefore, has the potential to be disastrous to not only rattlesnakes, but other species as well.

Study Reveals Massive Ecological Effects Of Animal Population Declines

Photo by Erik Christensen

The loss of large predators and herbivores has led to a staggering ecological shift and, in some cases, even contributed to climate change, according to a new research released by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to the study, reductions in the populations of large animals have had detrimental effects on marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems around the world.

For example, whales sequester carbon in the ocean through the deposition of feces. Industrial whaling has caused whale populations to plummet over the last 100 years, causing an additional 105 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, the research concludes.

In this instance, a population decline has contributed to climate change. But the inevitable chicken-and-egg quandary emerges: Are the changes to the ecosystem leading to climate change, or is climate change resulting in ecological shifts?

Perhaps a combination of both, depending on the individual animal population and ecosystem. Even this study admits that, in addition to the loss of large predators and herbivores, a variety of factors – including land-use practices, habitat loss, pollution and climate change – have altered ecosystems worldwide.

Catch 22 aside, this research sends a clear message: Earth’s delicate balance is easily disrupted, and conservation is key to its survival.

A Little Friendly Competition

I would be remiss if I neglected to acknowledge the climate negotiations that have taken place in Cancún over the past couple of weeks. I guess you could say I was a bit cynical — but how could you not be after the disappointment in Copenhagen last year?

In the conference’s 11th hour, participating nations reached an agreement to set up a new fund to help developing nations adapt to climate changes and for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from The New York Times. But what seems to be lacking from the final agreement is the actual numbers and a concrete goal.

For years, renewable energy advocates in the U.S. have been calling for a renewable electricity standard (RES), or a federal mandate to fulfill a specified percentage of the country’s total energy requirements with renewable energy by a certain year. RES legislation has yet to pass in the U.S. Congress, but these are the kinds of specific goals we need in order to make a significant dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and prevent further climate change.

The international Kyoto Protocol does contain specific goals and numbers — the 37 participating industrialized nations and the European community have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an annual average of 5% over the period from 2008-2012. The U.S., however, failed to ratify the protocol under the George W. Bush administration, rationalizing that if China — although still, technically, a developing nation, did not sign it, then it should not have to, either.

Yes, China is the biggest polluter on the planet. However, the U.S. is number two. But is this really how we want to play? The United States became a world superpower by leading by example. Why not use the same strategy in the 21st century? China is quickly establishing itself as a leader in renewable energy. The country is already home to solar energy giants such as Suntech and Yingli and, thanks to the government’s commitment to clean energy, is also set to increase its wind energy production five-fold over the next 10 years.

The United States is a capitalist country — we are motivated by competition. If we really want to establish ourselves in the world economy and maintain our position at — or at least near — the top in innovation and leadership, it’s time to step it up.

Partisanship has obviously been a major hindrance to accomplishing any kind of climate-change reform. But if we cannot agree on policy, can we at least agree on a little healthy competition? This is a country based on capitalism and free markets, right? I think even our stubborn and often-narrow-minded Congress would agree that we, as a country, should strive to be number one.

When it comes to climate change, is it possible that instead of failing to come to an agreement, that we actually encourage a little competition? Could it be a more productive strategy in the long run?

It sounds condescending to our leaders, and definitely overly simplistic, but I propose a plan: Let’s make it a competition: Can we beat China? What about the EU? Instead of playing the childish game of “He’s not; why do I have to?” let’s make it, “Oh yeah? Look what I can do!” I don’t know of any political representative — of any party — who can’t agree on that mantra.

Flying Into The Future

Sure, we’ve all heard about the hippies who filter recycled restaurant oil to run their 60s-era vans. But what if that concept could be applied on a gargantuan scale to help curb greenhouse gas emissions?

It turns out it’s not such a far-fetched idea after all: German airline Lufthansa has announced it will begin fueling some of its aircraft with a 50/50 biofuel-kerosene mix for some of its domestic flights. The airline will begin the six-month trial using its Airbus A321 beginning in April of next year.

According to a company statement from Lufthansa, “The primary purpose of the project is to conduct a long-term trial to study the effect of biofuel on engine maintenance and engine life.”

Wait, let me get this straight: They are testing the biofuel on commercial flights — real flights, real people. Nicht mit mir! Either Lufthansa needs a better English translator, or it needs the German equivalent of Mythbusters. I’m definitely no scientist. But is there any way it could simulate the biofuel flights without using human beings as its experimental lab mice?

To Lufthansa’s credit, the company is pushing the frontier of innovation in an era defined by fear and uncertainty. Not to be forgotten, almost every major technological breakthrough has involved taking some degree of risk. But let me ask you this: Would you want to be on one of those experimental “trial” flights?