Archive for October 2021

Hope   4 comments

Today is the start of COP26. Am I hopeful?

The effects of climate change are obvious in Maine, a place I call home. Increased severity of storms, warmer temperatures (winter up by 5 deg), longer growing seasons, rising sea level, etc. These well-documented changes are already having impacts on humans and a wide range of kindred species in the state.

In the Southwest, where I’ve just spent four weeks carrying out fieldwork, climate change is also well documented. But here’s a difference: in the SW climate change is IN YOUR FACE! This past May and June in the Chiricahua Mountains, during the driest spell I’ve witnessed in my more than 30 years of fieldwork, two lower elevation oak species dropped their old leaves from last year but did not grow new leaves, as they usually do that time of year. It was just too dry. Permanent streams in deep canyons, the lifeblood of wildlife, were empty over long stretches–drier than I’ve ever seen them. Luckily, the monsoon rains of July-September brought normal amounts of rain (unlike last summer). The two oaks leafed out and the streams partly refilled, although still far below their usual levels.

Scarce water sources, such as this one in the Devil’s Hall, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, are crucial for wildlife

The impacts of uncharacteristically large and severe wildfires are also common across the landscape. If you’re traversing higher elevation terrain, they’re a common landscape feature. It’s not uncommon to see large areas of forest and woodland, where everything was killed above ground. Some of these areas are growing back just fine, but others are returning, not as complex pine and pine-oak forest but as shrublands and grasslands.

The Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona burned more than 500,000 acres in the extremely dry year of 2011

That’s just a small sample of what I’ve seen in my recent work in the Southwest. (In an earlier post, I also mentioned the dramatic 150 foot drop in the levels of Lake Powell.)

The following is naive, to say the least. More of a feeling than a thought. But it’s beyond frustrating to see such plain and compelling evidence that we humans are damaging the ecological system that supports life on Earth, including us. YET politicians fail to act…because of ideology, because of lust for power, because of lust for money, because of cynicism…

When the winds of destruction blow so briskly, how can we maintain hope? I can speak only for myself. Hope, I think, is a fundamentally personal longing. I can’t believe that I’m going to start by quoting a football coach (not that I don’t like football). I heard a couple days ago (while listening to the World Series and entering data) that Vince Lombardi said that “winning isn’t everything, trying to win is,” which is weird because I thought he also said that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Oh well, I’ll take the former take to make my point that, for me, striving gives me hope, and striving with others gives me even more hope.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the University of Maine at Farmington Sustainable Campus Coalition, an organization that I founded with Grace Eason. Many people have built the SCC into what it is today: employing many students and involving faculty, staff, and community members, all striving to reduce campus energy use and carbon emissions, provide food and clothing (through its thrift store and food pantry), help with the campus garden and community farms, educate campus and community, and have lots of fun. The organization also offers me (and I think many others) hope that we can make things better. So, here’s to everyone who has been part of the SCC: happy birthday!

Over the past month I spent alot of time working with Guadalupe fescue (Festuca ligulata), a recently listed endangered plant in the US and protected species in Mexico. We know of only five populations in Mexico (northern Coahuila) and one in the US (Big Bend). The populations consist of only 100 to a few 100 plants each. I’m lucky to be part of a team of Mexican and US researchers and agency folks seeking to understand and sustain this small, unassuming grass. More on the project another time. For now, below is a photo of one of the six seedlings that have survived the first six months after being transplanted from greenhouse to the field by team member Javier Ochoa (of CONAMP in Mexico). Tears, joy, and a little hope at seeing these little wisps.

One of six surviving seedlings transplanted by Javier Ochoa (CONAMP in Mexico)

And this brings me back to COP26. Do I have hope? Despite strong winds blowing against progress, yes, I am hopeful. Maybe I’m too optimistic — by nature. And maybe we shouldn’t be pitching COP26 as our very last chance to change the course of history. Time is indeed short, but I’ll take some tacking in the right direction.

Posted October 31, 2021 by changingnatureofthemainewoods in Uncategorized

COP26 2 Days Away   Leave a comment

I’m on my way to COP26, from El Paso, after four weeks of fieldwork in four different sites in the Soutrhwest USA and northern Mexico. I’m expecting an overwhelming, maybe even chaotic, experience. So many people, so many events, so many last-minute initiatives, and so much on the line.

We continue to learn more about how the climate is changing and how it might change further in the future. This from Doug Reusch, a geologist, and my friend and colleague at the University of Maine at Farmington: “I was riveted to a presentation by Dr. Joellen Russell, a climate modeler at U Arizona, to an audience of Maine climate science folks. It was both ELECTRIFYING and TERRIFYING. . She’s identified a new tipping point, which occurs as the westerlies encroach poleward, intensify, and “part the waters” to allow the escape of CO2 from CO2-rich deep water (e.g, in as few as 5 years, we may see the ocean burp out 50 ppm CO2). Talk about motivation to do more to cut emissions now and faster.

The process of science is not perfect, but it can be wonderfully self-correcting. A 2018 paper by Stefan Klesse and colleagues provides some good news of sorts. Here’s a selection from their summary: “We show that U.S. Southwest ITRDB samples overestimate regional forest climate sensitivity by 41–59%, because ITRDB trees were sampled at warmer and drier locations, both at the macro- and micro-site scale, and are systematically older compared to the FIA collection. Although there are uncertainties associated with our statistical approach, projection based on representative FIA samples suggests 29% less of a climate change-induced growth decrease compared to projection based on climate-sensitive ITRDB samples.”

In plain speak, that means that because studies of tree rings generally selected trees that would show sensitivity to climate (trees on dry or hot sites, for example), our previous estimates of climate change impacts on trees in the Southwest were overestimated. Climate is still projected to depress tree growth, just less than we thought. Well…that’s something.

On the political front, there’s great uncertainty. Climate legislation in Congress is close but not quite there. China is holding back in upping their commitments, in part because of the tepid progress in the US, but also because of difficulty in meeting their electricity demands without using coal.

So, what are the expectations for COP26? It’s so very hard to say. Time is short for action, but maybe it’s too much to place all of our hopes on this one conference.

I’ll leave you with some good news on the climate front, from Science News:

‘Breakthrough’: IMF develops fund to help debt-laden nations address climate risks

The IMF trust fund could be worth up to $50 billion and meet vulnerable countries’ call for support to address the triple crisis of debt, Covid and climate change

Posted October 30, 2021 by changingnatureofthemainewoods in Uncategorized

COP26 starts in less than 3 weeks   Leave a comment

COP26 starts in less than three weeks. The importance of the 26th “conference of the parties” has been driven home to me while I’ve been in the southwestern USA carrying out research on recovery after wildfires. I’ve been working in a big burn, from Horseshoe Two Fire of 2011, which burned within a perimeter of over 200,000 acres. You can see the changes wrought by the fire in the photo below. What used to be a complex forest with tall pines and shorter oaks is now an oak shrubland. This is happening in many places across the Southwest. Our data suggest that some of these lands will not return to the previous forest type.

Even more striking to me was the boat ramp (near Bulfrog) on Lake Powell shown below. If you look closely, you’ll see a road and then a boat ramp running from left to the right in the middle of the photo. Notice what’s missing: water! That’s because the drought and high temperatures of the last couple of decades has caused Lake Powell to drop nearly 150 feet. As a result, the lake is now far from this lonely boat ramp.

The impacts of climate change are much more than just hotter temperature.

Posted October 13, 2021 by changingnatureofthemainewoods in Uncategorized