Category Archives: climate

Climate change leaves wolverines on slippery slope

Wolverines, those vociferous, marathon-climbing, fearless relatives of the sea otter may soon face a foe that no amount of bravery can outlast — climate change.

Climate model results from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, show wolverine habitat in the Lower 48 warming significantly from climate change during the second half of the century. The pending warmer climes threaten snow cover that is vital to the wolverine’s survival.

“It’s highly uncertain whether wolverines will continue to survive in the lower 48, given the changes that are likely to take place there,” said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock in a press release, and the lead author of a paper, which appears in Environmental Research Letters.

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverines dig snow dens for their kits 8 to 10 feet deep, and are specially adapted to run and hunt across the snow. Snow pack also helps preserve carrion that the wolverines rely on for sustenance throughout the winter. While about 15,000 wolverines are estimated to live across Canada and Alaska, only a few dozen are thought to still live in Montana, Wyoming and Washington State, according to the press release.

If the plight of the wolverine is not the kind of thing that gets your hair on end, there’s still reason to care. The study also found that a side effect of the loss of snow melt means big impacts for people as well. The projected lack of snow could reduce the amount of water in Idaho, western Montana and western Wyoming by as much as three or four-fold by the end of the century. Get those water-saving shower heads now.

The study is not meant to bring only doom and gloom. Researcher say this kind of analysis could help us think preventative. “This study is an example of how targeted climate predictions can produce new insights that could help us reduce the impact of future climate change on delicate ecosystems,” said Sarah Ruth, program director for the NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences in a press release.

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

A critter of unique character — to really understand what makes the wolverine such a remarkable creature, check out Douglas Chadwick’s book, The Wolverine Way. Even if you’re not a wildlife lover, this is an adventurous read that will leave you in awe of what a creature will do to survive.

NCAR Study available here.


First some good news, then the Chesapeake gets a sinking feeling

In Norfolk, Virginia, some residents are starting to raise their houses to counteract sea-level rise. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

In Norfolk, Virginia, some residents are raising their houses in order to fight flooding and counteract sea-level rise. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

Chesapeake Bay residents can breathe a little sigh of relief. The magnitude of absolute sea-level rise, the volume and mass of sea water, happening along its coastlines is a mere fraction of the global average, according to a new study. That’s a break the highly populated coastline needs because the other half the study shows that the land around the Chesapeake is sinking, a lot.

New research led by John Boon with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) found that absolute sea-level along the Chesapeake Bay is rising on average 1.8mm per year, about 50 percent of the global rate. “The bad news,” said Boon in a press release, “is that local subsidence more than makes up for it.”

Dense development along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay (Photo/Morgan Heim)Development and land use practices, such as increased population and groundwater withdrawals, are putting the pressure on the Chesapeake, literally causing the land to sink. In fact, the land is subsiding so much that it leads to an overall picture of sea-level impacts that outstrips many other regions around the world, said the study.

On average, relative sea-level rise – the amount of water rise in relation to land – for the Chesapeake is between 2.91 and 5.8 millimeters per year. To put that in perspective, either of those values is higher than the highest rates recorded for many other places, according to the press release. And while, 5.8mm per year might not sound like much, this adds up to about a 2-foot rise over the course of 100 years.

A flooded neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a July 2010 rainstorm dumped a month's worth of water in a 2-hour perioed. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

A flooded neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a July 2010 rainstorm dumped a month's worth of water in a 2-hour perioed. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

This is especially important news for Bay communities already threatened by increased flooding hazards from hurricanes and Nor’easters, said the study. Boon encourages further monitoring and mapping of sea-level trends that could aid in the adjustment of emergency response plans.

Cane toads heart climate change

Cane Toad, AKA Bufo marinus, AKA troublemaker extraordinaire (Photo/ Eli Greenbaum)

Cane toads like it hot, and with climate change poised to raise temps in Australia, this persistent, invasive species could soon be living it up even more.

At least that’s the word coming out of new research from the University of Sydney and presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague.

A lot of what we hear about climate change focuses on habitat loss (cue rising sea levels) or species extinction (sorry red wolf and coral reefs), but here’s another way the pesky, poisonous cane toad can flip the amphibian bird to mankind – warmer climes mean prolific times as far as the toad is concerned.

“The negative effect of high temperature does not operate in cane toads, meaning that toads will do very well with human induced global warming,” said Professor Frank Seebacher from the University of Sydney in a press release.

Many of you reading this are probably familiar with the story of the cane toad, but here’s the quick shake down. In the mid 1930s, Australian biologists, hoping to stem the onslaught of beetles ravaging cane fields, introduced cane toads to Queensland and the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, toads passed on the beetles, instead turning their appetites towards lizards, snakes and other native wildlife. To compound factors, the toads secrete a toxic substance that can do a serious number on just about anything that tries to eat it. So the cane fields now have beetles and bucket loads of poisonous toads. Sigh.

And because of research by Seebacher, we now have a good idea that toads are going to thrive even more as temperatures rise from climate change. Warmer weather makes for stronger, or at least more efficient, heart and lungs in the cane toad, Seebacher found. And if that’s not unsettling enough, the study also states “the cane toad can adapt its physiology in response to a changing environment repeatedly and completely reversibly many times during its lifetime.”

Will nothing temper their proliferation?

Before you totally throw up your hands and say, “Why do I read this if all you’re going to tell me is bad news,” here’s a ray, or sliver, of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this phenomenon will prove true for other toads, ones we actually would like to see stick around. I’ll get back to you when Seebacher conducts that study.

Inuit knowledge helps scientists learn something new about Arctic weather

Disclosure: I work as the science writer for CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the institute behind this research.

Inuit forecasters equipped with generations of environmental knowledge are helping scientists understand changes in Arctic weather. (Photo/Shari Gearheard, NSIDC)

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Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic can look to the sky and tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt.

Thousands of miles away in a lab tucked in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use the latest computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose that come from disparate worlds.

But in the past twenty years, something has run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour, instead of a day.

Now a melding of indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science is helping researchers learn something new about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

“It’s interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “With the Inuit, it’s much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them.”

For years, researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But their stories didn’t seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation, said Weatherhead. The disparity left scientists scratching their heads.

“I had heard about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years,” said Weatherhead, who also works closely with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and is chief author on a new study on the subject. “But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations.”

That’s where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, also part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past ten years has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

Weather carries with it a special importance in Arctic environments, where a reliable forecast can mean the difference between life and death. There are those in the Inuit community who possess the skills to predict the weather, but that’s knowledge that is dying off as both the culture and climate change, said Gearheard.

“The impacts of that are a loss of confidence in those forecasters, and concerns about incorrect forecasts. Forecasters don’t want to send somebody out to go hunting if they’re going to be unsafe and be in poor weather conditions,” said Gearheard.

Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge, she said.

Changes experienced during spring, a time of transition for many environmental processes, are of particular importance to the Inuit. During a predictable spring, for example, the Inuit would notice that the top layer of the snow melts during the day and refreezes at night, forming a crust.

“In fact in a lot of places, the season is named after a particular process by the Inuit,” said Gearheard. “In cases like this where the Inuit are not seeing that process anymore, it is an indicator to them that something had changed.”

Gearheard’s records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the information she needed to bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. “What was incredibly helpful was Shari’s detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales,” said Weatherhead. “That just really allowed us to start focusing in our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.”

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May and June the persistence of temperature had recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability at that season. “People hadn’t previously looked at persistence in this way,” said CIRES fellow Roger Barry, also director of the World Data Center for Glaciology at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and a study co-author along with Gearheard.

What they found was a scientific story more in line with what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world. “That’s an incredibly important parameter to care about,” said Weatherhead. “The way I try to describe it to some people is if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don’t need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.

Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we’re talking about,” Weatherhead said.

The new study helps scientists refine and test climate models, while also providing such models with a new category of information to consider, said Weatherhead. And Gearheard’s work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science.

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard said. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”

Weatherhead and Gearheard are intrigued by the insights incorporating indigenous knowledge has provided climate studies, but they don’t want to stop there, they said. The new study has sparked an interest in the type of environmental knowledge other communities could provide to climate scientists, from ranchers and farmers to indigenous groups. “That’s when exciting stuff happens,” said Gearheard. “When you treat these perspectives as different forms of evidence or knowledge and see where that takes you.”

The study appears this month in the journal Global Environmental Change. The National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study.

Looking to the skies to predict hantavirus outbreaks

Captive bred Peromyscus maniculatus (Deer Mouse). Originally published at (Photo Courtesy 6th Happiness)

When faced with plagues of deer mice and outbreaks of deadly hantavirus, checking in with the weatherman probably isn’t on most people’s minds. But new science shows that maybe it should be.

Scientists report in the Journal of Animal Ecology that they have been able for the first time to quantify the link between weather events, like El Niño, and booms in potentially hazardous deer mouse populations. Best take this news seriously. We’re in the middle of an El Niño season.

Their findings may help public health officials develop better hantavirus prevention strategies as well as enable scientists to predict how climate change could affect the severity and locations of deer mouse outbreaks.

The Sin Nombre hantavirus is an illness not worth wishing on your worst enemy. It’s a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transferred from animal to human. The first recognized U.S. outbreak occurred in 1993 in the Four Corners region, and on average, 20 to 40 cases are reported each year, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Unlucky victims can look forward to flu-like symptoms and respiratory and heart failure, and survivors face recurring symptoms for the rest of their lives. The disease is transferred by deer mouse droppings, urine and the animal itself.

Biologist Angela D. Luis with Pennsylvania State University, Richard J. Douglass at the University of Montana and colleagues combined capture-release, climate and vegetation data with computer models to find out if deer mouse population and disease presence were influenced by weather. 15 years and more than 4,700 mice later, Luis and her colleagues found the connection.

At first glance, it sounds like more rain means more food, more mice and more hantavirus, as rainy years create better food crops for the cute but pesky disease carriers. But the relationship is not so straightforward. The “more rain equals more everything else” scenario is partially influenced by season. Luis found that higher temperatures and rain in the summer through early winter months bode well for mouse populations, but not so well during the spring.

This could be particularly key for the Southwest, as during El Niño years, this region typically experiences significantly more rainfall. The study isn’t perfect, factors like predation, migration, and competition could also be affecting deer mouse outbreaks, but the weather connection appears to be strong.

Right now Luis and her colleagues are expanding their study. So far they’ve looked at habitat in Montana only. They are looking at more types of environments throughout the state, including sagebrush and pine forests, which will help determine whether their model could be applied to multiple regions.

Family dining right whale style


For a month after birth, Southern right whale mothers and their calves rest and nurse. Then, like the pair shown here off Argentina, they start to swim faster and farther as they prepare for a long migration in the South Atlantic to reach their feeding areas. A University of Utah study found mother whales teach their calves where to eat, raising concern about whether the whales can adapt as global warming disrupts feeding grounds. (Photo/John Atkinson, Ocean Alliance)

For a month after birth, Southern right whale mothers and their calves rest and nurse. Then, like the pair shown here off Argentina, they start to swim faster and farther as they prepare for a long migration in the South Atlantic to reach their feeding areas. A University of Utah study found mother whales teach their calves where to eat, raising concern about whether the whales can adapt as global warming disrupts feeding grounds. (Photo/John Atkinson, Ocean Alliance)

Mom right whales know best when it comes to mealtime it seems. They lead calves to grub at traditional feeding grounds teaching their offspring generations of knowledge about when and where to find food. In fact whole clans of whales will dine together in the cetacean version of a family-owned dining spot. But this is one family tradition that could lead to starvation for an already vulnerable whale species if climate change causes shifts in food distribution.

Previous research by Vicky Rowntree, research associate professor of biology and a coauthor of the new study at the University of Utah, has already shown the impacts of climate change on right whale populations. When sea temperatures rise, krill disappear and right whales respond by giving birth to fewer offspring. Now these new studies into whale behavior could highlight another problem for the whales when it comes to food.

“A primary concern is, what are whales going to do with global warming, which may change the location and abundance of their prey?” asked Rowntree in a press release. “Can they adapt if they learn from their mother where to feed – or will they die?”

Rowntree and her colleagues collected skin samples from right whales and, using a novel technique in science, combined DNA and isotope analysis to determine whale lineages and where they tend to chow down. They found that related whales congregated in designated areas to feed, and that mothers teach calves in their first year of life where to find food.

Here’s to hoping that right whales will be quick to adapt if the buffet moves elsewhere.

An upside to climate change?

They’re the five “dirty words” of the West — cheatgrass; spotted knapweed; yellow starthistle; tamarisk; and leafy spurge — but the battle against these pervasive troublemakers could receive a boost from an unlikely ally, climate change. Scientists from Princeton University have determined that climate change will very likely cause massive die-offs of these invasive plants across the West, creating unprecedented opportunities to restore millions of acres of infected wilderness to native vegetation.

The findings, released this month in the journal Global Change Biology, will help land managers develop long-term invasive plant recovery projects. The restorative potential comes at a price however, as the model used in the study also predicts that some populations of invasive plants may simply shift their ranges to new areas — yellow starthistle will likely move from its current range in California, Oregon and Washington to a new ranges in California and Nevada for example.

Either way, the study forecasts a new picture of the western landscape, and may help researchers treat or possibly prevent invasive plant infestations. Whether the prognosis is good or bad, this is potentially important news for land managers and residents.

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