Climate change affects all species

Climate change affects all species

The popular media has tried to portray the various ways that global warming will effect humans. From science fiction movies to television documentaries, we've seen computer-generated images of ocean shores devouring coastlines in California and New York as glacial melting causing oceans to rise.

And with more than six billion people on the planet we may be one of the more populous mammal species.

But we are not alone.

We share those coast lines - and the rest of the planet - with as many as 50 million species of swimming, crawling, slithering, running and flying critters. Most of them are undiscovered and most of them insects.

And from insects to birds to elk, they, too, are feeling the heat.

Helmuth Rogg is an entomologist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He said he's no expert on climate change, but research shows the spread and migration of insects indicate global warming is happening.

"You can pretty much tell global warming is happening while looking at insects; actually, at the spread of insects to where they haven't been before and the establishment of insects in areas where they haven't been before."

Rogg said this effects people in terms of crop pests and disease transmission, such as malaria, yellow fever, and West Nile virus, among others.

"This is stuff that will be happening more and more," he said.

Rogg explained insects are a good indicator because they have a fast reproductive cycle.

"So whatever changes are taking place these guys are affected very quickly and they begin to react very quickly to changes in the environment or they won't make it."

While insects dying off might not seem all that bad, they, like everything else, fit a niche in ecosystems. Insects help pollinate plants and are often the prey base for birds.

Changing trendsMike Denny is co-chairman of the Conservation Committee for Blue Mountain Audubon Society. He said climate change has already started affecting migration patterns in both land and sea birds.

In parts of the Columbia Basin and the Walla Walla Valley, from Pendleton to Walla Walla and over to Rufus, more birds are wintering over.

As warmer temperature arrive earlier, so do birds. And insects that usually are not around until April or June are appearing earlier, and that also brings birds.

Weather patterns that were established now are changing, Denny said, and the birds are having to contend with that.

"This throws their whole rhythm off," he said.

Climate change is challenging bird strategies for nesting and survival, since the timing of ecological events can be a serious issue. If insects emerge early, such as in April rather than May, birds may not have hatched yet, and the insects they usually feed on may have matured and moved on.

Denny also said the spread of certain species is happening. The Great Tailed Grackle, native to the Plains and Southwestern United States, has now been seen in Washington state. The Northern Mocking Bird, which lived in northern California, is seen throughout the northwest. And the Baltimore Oriole is west now seen of the Rockies.

Denny said the new birds are low in numbers, but birds native to the Northwest are also moving out, going north to Canada and as far north as Alaska.

Sea birds are hurtingSea birds, too, are affected by the change in climate.

Off the Oregon Coast, birds such as the common murre and other auklets are facing a difficult situation.

The birds fed on anchovies and sand lance, small fish that forms the prey base for these and other birds, as well as for some fish. But when ocean temperatures rise just a few degrees Fahrenheit, the prey moves in search of cooler water.

As the prey go, so do the birds, who abandon their nests and eggs in search of food. With that loss of prey base, the common murre is starving to death.

"It's a serious problem," Denny said. "When one aspect of the system is out of balance, it throws everything out."

For example, in 1983, during a big El Nio event, the murre experienced almost 100 percent mortality. Then, 10 years later, another big El Nio struck, harming the birds again.

"The whole natural world is trying to adjust to this and some birds won't be able to make it."

This isn't localized to the Oregon Coast. Brown pelicans swooped into Puget Sound this summer in a search for prey. Denny said that was unprecedented.

And all this movement has not been documented until the last four to five years, he said

Evidence aboundsJoshua Lawler is a research ecologist with Oregon State University working on post-doctoral work with Nature Conservancy to study the effect of climate change on species distribution.

He said there's plenty of evidence to document the kinds of shifts Denny talks about, and not just in the U.S., but in Great Britain and other places. For the last 100 yeas, and especially the last 20 years, species are either moving up in elevation or toward the North Pole in response to climate change.

His research, which he expects to publish in a month or two, tries to predict where Western Hemisphere birds, amphibians and mammals - 3,000 species in all - will be in 100 years in response to climate change.

That's not an easy task.

To get some answers, Lawler spent two years using 30 climate change models that give future climate projections. He funneled that information into his model of future distribution and came up with 30 different projections for each species.

He then looked across all those maps for commonalties to find out what distribution projections he could make.

Some areas in the models all agreed about significant changes and some all agreed about minor changes. Lawler said some of the biggest changes included central America, Andes Mountains and parts of Atlantic rain forest.

He also said big changes can be seen at edges of eco-regions and at the boundaries of different biomes. And that should be expected because of species range, he said.

Other area, like the Patagonian steppe, will be stable.

"The kind of thing we're trying to predict is the kind of change we will see in places," he said, which can be tricky and not very precise for any one place.

Gorge will see changesLawler said the models produced some projections of the Pacific Northwest, particularly for animals in the Columbia River Gorge.

He said the region could see a species loss between 3 to 16 percent, meaning birds and mammals that are here now will not be in the future. Other animals, however, may move in.

The models predict a range contraction of the northern goshawk and for the yellow bellied marmot in intermountain west.

He also said the east side of the Douglas squirrel's range, which now lives in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, could face contraction.

"These are all future projections, " Lawler said, "there's uncertainty." He said the real distribution may be more severe or less dramatic.

Mark Henjum is a retired biologist from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He speculated as to what climate change could mean from deer and elk, some of the Pacific Northwest's more popular animals.

"Milder weather could mean better survival through the winter, and that could mean the animals would have more fat reserves to put toward reproduction."

But if drier summers brought an increase in wild fires, then the animals could face a loss of cover. A prolonged drought, he said, would hurt the forage deer and elk live on, "so how they go into winter sets them up for failure."

He also said drier summers might mean the animals will see better forage, and that could drive them into irrigated agricultural areas more often, creating more human-and-animal conflicts.

Mark Kirsh, a district biologist with the ODFW, said ungulates - deer and elk - show a varying degree of adaptability, with elk being the biggest generalists.

"Elk occupy a huge range of habitat, from alpine forest to valley planes and their density is affected by density of vegetation and water," Kirsh said.

Comparatively, white-tail deer tend to thrive on scrub land and river bottoms, but if the habitats sees drought, then mule deer do well.

Will the land cope?Climate effects the carrying capacity of the land. Generally, as temperatures rise and plants dry up, the carrying capacity - how much life the land can support - goes down.

Kirsh said elk are true survivors, but a great scarcity of resources would most likely drive down elk population.

He also explained that climate change is difficult to weave into biological studies. Climate change can take a long time to show tangibles in animals. After all, climatologists conduct studies of weather patterns with data that goes back a hundred years.

They consider climate not just in terms of seasons, but years, decades and millennia.

Ecologists and biologists, however, may have careers that span just 30 years, and conduct studies that cover only a few years. That may not be enough time to see what climate is doing to an animal species.

Ultimately, Mother Nature and evolution will have the final say in how animals respond to climate change.

"It's always who wins and who loses, depending on the niche they occupy," Kirsh said.

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