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Early Spring

hepatica embrace

Hepaticas blooming at the beginning of April, 2010

Instead of April showers last year, we had unprecedented heat.  On April 2, it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  Flowers and trees bloomed days and even weeks ahead of records I’ve been keeping since 1971. By the middle of the month, we had a May woods.  Even the mayapples bloomed in April.

During the first half of the month, it was downright spooky.  Most of the trees and shrubs had leafed out, and yet the woods were silent.  Finally, on April 16, I heard the first ruby-crowned kinglet.  After that, a steady parade of Neotropical migrants returned more or less the same time as usual.

Coincidentally, I read Early Spring by Amy Seidl.  She is a field scientist who has worked around the world studying a huge variety of ecosystems from the Antarctic to the tropics.  Now she lives in rural Vermont.

“The natural world is changing,” she writes.  In the Northern hemisphere, “species are moving on average three and a half miles per decade northward and twenty feet per decade upward in elevation.”

Last year eclipsed 1998 as the hottest year on record.  The last decade — 2000-2009 — was the warmest decade on record.  When I compared my records of several blooming dates, I was surprised to note that in most species 1998 had the earliest blooming date except for 2010, for instance, purple trillium April 12, 1998 and April 7, 2010, rue anemone April 12, 1998 and April 5, 2010, and sweet white violet April 12, 1998 and April 7, 2010.  And for the first time ever, our French white lilacs bloomed on April 15, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination about which Walt Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”  I had always thought  that that date for lilac-blooming corresponded to the date in Washington, D.C., but the United States Department of Agriculture has found that lilacs in the United States are blooming two to four days earlier per decade than they did 40 years ago.  Apparently, our lilacs were beginning to follow that trend.

shadbush at sunset

Shadbush stayed in bloom for only a few days

Climate scientists have been hesitant to attribute separate weather events, such as a flood in Pakistan, a drought in northern Africa, or a hurricane in New Orleans, to global warming.  But they have decided, using mathematical models of how the atmosphere would work if carbon dioxide levels had not increased from 278 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 389 ppm today, plus using information on ancient climates and historical weather patterns, that our carbon-based economy has led to approximately 75% of the heating of our planet.

In addition, the way it is heating also points to human causes.  If a hotter sun was raising earth’s temperature, they say, it would heat the upper atmosphere.  Instead, the lower atmosphere is heating up while the upper atmosphere has cooled which points to the greenhouse effect.  So too does the warming of the oceans, the unbelievably rapid retreat of arctic sea ice, and the change in rainfall patterns — droughts followed by deluges instead of dependable, gentle rains, a phenomenon we have witnessed here during the last several years.

“Natural causes alone can’t explain this,” Ben Santer, climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says.  “You need a large human contribution.”

That human contribution includes the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — in vehicles, homes, and factories.  In addition, the destruction of forests — boreal, temperate, and tropical, which act as large repositories for the Earth’s carbon — is contributing twice as much carbon to the atmosphere as all the world’s cars and trucks.  For example, boreal forest in Siberia and North America absorb an estimated 20% of human-caused carbon-dioxide emissions.  They are also the summer home for many of our songbirds.  Yet they, like the tropical forests, are being cut at an unsustainable rate.

But what about us here in the central Appalachians.  How will we be affected by the rising temperatures?  It depends on how high they rise.  According to the Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment done back in 2009, Pennsylvania may warm up as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit, which is the high emissions scenario.  If so, our summers will be like those now in northern Alabama.  Under the low emissions scenario — a rise of three degrees or less — our summers will be more like those in southern Virginia.  This will lead to an increase in precipitation, especially in the winter, to a three-to-five-week longer growing period, a more extreme climate with longer dry periods like last April when our vernal ponds dried up, and harder rains, even in winter, an increase in stream temperatures, and great changes in our forests.

A watchful beech tree

One of our beech trees. By May 10, the trees were fully leafed out.

Many northern hardwood species, such as paper birch, quaking aspen, big tooth aspen, and yellow birch would be greatly reduced even under a lower emissions scenario and possibly extinct in the state.  Other species like American beech, black cherry, striped maple, eastern hemlock, red and sugar maples, eastern white pine, black birch, white ash and American basswood — all of which grow abundantly on our property — would decline.  Oaks and hickories would increase except for northern red oak and chestnut oak, again, the major species on our mountaintop now, which would decline and be replaced by southern oak species.  We might also have other southern species such as loblolly, shortleaf pine, common persimmon, and red mulberry, although scientists aren’t sure how they would get here unless we planted them.

And plant them and other forest trees we will have to do for forest regeneration.  Acid deposition, native and non-native insects and disease, severe storms, and fire would pose even greater threats to our forests than they do today. The assessment also urges that we should stop high-grading diameter-limit cutting, maintain forest buffers along our streams, restore aquatic systems, and minimize groundwater pumping.  Even if our forests were not threatened by global climate change, such recommendations would greatly benefit our forests.

That’s what the eighty people from thirty state and national government, research, and non-governmental organizations concluded at a conference I attended last April called “Weathering Climate Change: Framing Strategies to Minimize Impacts on Pennsylvania Ecosystems and Wildlife.”  Held at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Presque Isle State Park, the keynote address by Bruce Stein of the National Wildlife Federation was entitled “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: Conservation in an Era of Climate Change.” Stein talked about “global weirding,” the incredible increase in weather extremes, an increase, but the way, that Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer that sells policies to insurance companies to cover their policy holders’ risks, agrees with.  They’ve been tracking climate change, using a database which goes back for centuries and have found that the frequency of worldwide serious floods has tripled since 1980 and hurricanes and other severe wind storms have doubled.

While we could, but probably won’t, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the high emissions scenario, we must focus on preparing for and coping with the impacts by practicing what Stein called “climate smart conservation.”  He urged proactive management of vulnerable species and improving habitat connectivity to allow species to move more easily.  Unfortunately, with the incredible number of roads and spreading suburban sprawl in our state along with the huge increase in gas well pads and industrial wind farms, it will be harder than ever to maintain, let alone improve, habitat connectivity.

cerulean warbler

Will climate change doom "our" cerulean warblers? (Photo by Gregory Breese/USFWS)

Dan Brauning, Chief of Wildlife Diversity for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, spoke about the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) and Pennsylvania’s responsibility for certain species.  Of immediate concern are the eastern small-footed bat, especially because of the threat of white nose syndrome to that species and the other cave-hibernating bat species in our state, and the Allegheny packrat.  The golden-winged warbler, Appalachian cottontail, and cerulean warbler are of high-level concern, and of maintenance concern are the wood thrush and the scarlet tanager.  In fact, Pennsylvania hosts 18 % of the world’s population of scarlet tanagers which includes an estimated 575,000 males.  Altogether, there are 36 SWAP species of conservation concern — 9 birds, 10 invertebrates, 4 mammals, 6 mussels, and 7 reptiles — as well as 29 plant species, all victims already of habitat loss.

Several other speakers spoke of the threats to our natural resources, and Nels Johnson of the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) mentioned the need for long-term research, a more collaborative work culture between government, non-governmental and research organizations, public engagement and education, and focusing on existing stresses, which makes sense even if we are uncertain about the degree of climate change our state will experience over the century. In essence, we must help nature become more resilient by a combination of management, restoration, and protection strategies.

To my great delight, TNC purchased the other end of our Brush Mountain overlooking Altoona on one side and Canoe Creek State Park on the other.  Describing it as 640-acres of a large, intact forest, it will be part of what they call their Working Woodlands Program and is open for hiking, birding, and hunting.  It was logged before its sale to TNC, and they are planning restoration as part of their management strategy.  Unlike our lower end of the mountain, it has a population of eastern timber rattlesnakes, most likely Allegheny packrats in the extensive talus slope, and provides habitat for many other creatures in the SWAP, most notably wood thrushes, cerulean warblers, and scarlet tanagers.

Amtrak at the Plummer's Hollow crossing

Amtrak at the Plummer's Hollow crossing. We need a lot more train travel and a lot fewer cars and trucks!

Our mountain, the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province, is an important fall migration route for raptors.

“In the future,” the Pennsylvania TNC website says, “It may provide the connectivity many animal species will need to migrate away from and adapt to the effects of global climate change.”

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist-writer who has been warning about the effects of climate change for over two decades, says that “The world will never again be as whole as it is even now, and already it’s degraded, altered, impoverished.  So one of our tasks is simply to bear witness.”

I hope that the nature journals and records I have kept here since 1971 will be part of that witness as our climate continues to change.

All photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

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