What Will Conservation Cost?

Probably billions, as climate change complicates conservation

The Bay checkerspot butterfly is one of the species that might need help migrating.

Traditional approaches to preserving biodiversity may not hold up as the climate changes.

One common tool environmental groups use now is to buy land. But that tactic only works if, once the land is protected, the species that live there can stay there. Climate change scrambles that notion. Species won’t necessarily be able to stay where they are in perpetuity. A new study in the journal Conservation Biology (abstract only) examines what it would cost to stick to the current approach and the same conservation goals in one area in California. And that number — again, for just one conservation area — is staggering. By 2100, the study finds, the total price tag will be about $2.5 billion.

“It is a dizzying number,” Rebecca Shaw, the associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the study’s authors, told me. “And it’s dizzying because climate change is dynamic and our conservation strategies are designed for static systems.”

Shaw explains that the current approach — searching out good habitat, buying the land, hands-on management and monitoring — is expensive anyway. But she predicts that climate change will double the cost.

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Alpine Chipmunks’ Habitat and Gene Pool are Shrinking

One of the few mammals unique to California is also one of the most threatened by climate change.

The alpine chipmunk only lives in California, and its habitat is shrinking.

The alpine chipmunk, found in Yosemite’s high country, has moved upslope as temperatures have warmed over the last century.

Now a new study out yesterday from the journal Nature Climate Change shows a warming climate may also be affecting the species’ genetic diversity. Listen to my radio story about the study on today’s California Report.

The alpine chipmunk is one of the smallest chipmunks in California. It’s also got a uniquely striped face. It’s hard to see these chipmunks in the wild unless you strap on a backpack and climb some 10,000 feet high in the Sierra.

That’s what study author Emily Rubidge did as a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Geology. She’s part of a team that’s been ambitiously updating Joseph Grinnell’s historic survey of Yosemite’s wildlife from the early 1900s.

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Can a Changing Climate Make You Fat?

Anna's Humminbird

Maybe… if you’re a bird.  

You may have heard that climate change is affecting the size of habitats, but did you know that it may also be changing the size of organisms themselves?

A new study finds that songbirds in central California are getting bigger.

The report, published this month in the journal Global Change Biology, looked at the wingspan and weight of thousands of small birds in the region, such as finches, robins, swallows and hummingbirds, and found that over the last 30 years size has increased from .02 percent to .1 percent annually.

Researchers at PRBO Conservation Science looked at data for 73 species, combing 40 years of data from Point Reyes National Seashore and nearly 30 years of data from Milpitas. Continue reading

Snapping Snakes for Science — with your iPhone

An innovative citizen science project gains momentum, sprouts new branches

Tad Arensmeier photographed this Yellow-Blotched Palm-Pitviper for iNaturalist.

The organizers of a new effort to catalog the world’s reptiles want to enlist you and your iPhone for their cause. The Global Reptile Bioblitz launched last month and aims to collect amateur observations of every species of reptile on Earth — all 9,413 of them. The project is the sister effort of the Global Amphibian Bioblitz which launched earlier this summer and, thanks to submissions from citizen scientists around the world, has already collected photos of more than 700 of the nearly 7,000 known amphibian species on the planet.

The observations are all logged at, an online citizen science community with more than 2,000 members who’ve cumulatively logged more than 30,000 field observations of species ranging from redwoods to coyotes.Observations can be uploaded to the site directly, or through an iPhone app, also called iNaturalist, which was launched earlier this year. Since we first reported on it back in January, the app has been downloaded more than 3,000 times, according to its developer Ken-ichi Ueda. Continue reading

Saving Redwoods: There’s an App for That

Redwoods: There's an app for that. (Photo: Michael Limm)

We’re not the only ones who think iNaturalist is pretty cool. Save the Redwoods does, too.

The San Francisco-based conservation organization has teamed up with the biodiversity-tracking social networking site to create an iPhone app exclusively for monitoring redwood and giant sequoia forests. It’s called Redwood Watch. It uses the same technology as the iNaturalist iPhone app, aggregating data on a special Redwoods page within

“We hope that this will help us have a better idea of where redwoods are, and then we can use that data to understand what kinds of conditions they can tolerate,” said Emily Limm, director of science and planning for Save the Redwoods. Continue reading

Joshua Trees Losing Ground, Fast

Joshua trees in Eureka Valley, CA (Photo: Ken Cole, USGS)

Joshua trees, the spiky desert-dwellers that are so iconic to Southern California’s dry country that they got a national park named after them, will likely disappear from 90% of their current range by the end of the century, according to a new study by scientists at the US Geological Survey.

Ecologist Ken Cole, the study’s lead author, said that means no more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park, which is currently in the southernmost part of the species’ range. It also means elimination of the trees across wide swathes of other parts of Southern California as well as Nevada and Arizona.

Cole and his team used climate models, field work, and the fossil record to project the future distribution of Joshua trees. They compared the projected increase in temperatures for the Southwest (four degrees Celsius, according to a “middle of the road” IPCC scenario) to a similar rapid increase in temperatures nearly 12,000 years ago, at the end of the ice age.

Using fossil sloth dung and packrat midden, the scientists reconstructed how Joshua trees responded to that warming. (Sloths, which are now extinct in the region, and packrats, ate the Joshua tree fruit, spreading the seeds and leaving them behind for the scientists to track.) Continue reading

Report: California a “Conservation Hotspot”

A report pinpoints critical areas in California for protecting critters

The North American pika like the protection and cool refuge of high-elevation talus slopes. (Photo: US Forest Service)

California is one of five places on earth with a Mediterranean climate. It has enough endemic plant species to be its own “floristic province.” It’s also what biologists refer to as a biodiversity hotspot. So it’s not surprising that a report by the Endangered Species Coalition includes three places either completely or partially within California in its list of ten of the most important locations to protect endangered species.

The report highlights areas across the U.S. that are most threatened, such as the Everglades, and places that provide home to the greatest number of endangered species, like Hawaii. Continue reading

The Insidious Side of Climate Change

If you think climate change just means hotter summers in California, think again. The writer of this week’s guest post argues that we’ll all “feel the heat” in myriad ways, both obvious and subtle.

Climate and Nature
by Anthony Barnosky

Some impacts of climate change in California are pretty obvious, things like rising sea level submerging large parts of the San Francisco Bay region, or drought cutting into our water supplies.  Less obvious, but every bit as important, are impacts on something you probably don’t even know you have: your relationship with nature.

One part of that relationship is the concept of “ecosystem services;” the direct benefits you get from nature.  California’s Climate Action Team highlighted some of the state’s ecosystem services in their recent report.  Examples include the ski trip you may have taken this winter, the salmon fillet you may have bought at the grocery store, or surprisingly, even your hamburger.

barnosky_snowfunSnow will be less, soggier, at higher elevations, and on the ground for fewer days of the winter, melting some of the $500 million-per-year revenues of the ski industry–not to mention melting your favorite ski run.  Altered river dynamics and temperatures will almost certainly cut into the state’s $33-million-per-year salmon industry. Climate-caused loss of forage means that in 2070 California’s cattle ranchers will be losing up to $92 million in comparison to today’s markets, which means higher beef prices at the grocery store.  Combined, the losses in these ecosystem services likely will cost the state’s already suffering economy well over a hundred million dollars per year as we move into the next few decades. And those are just three of many ecosystem services that will be affected.

A second part of your relationship to nature is the species around you, that is to say, biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is which species live in a place, and the extent to which those species are rare or common.  In general, biodiversity means more productive and healthier ecosystems, which translates as more benefits to humans that inhabit those areas.  As it turns out, California is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, unique in the world.  But biodiversity losses from global warming promise to be severe: one study predicts that two-thirds of the 2387 plant species found only in the state will lose 80% of their range within the century.

barnosky_icylakeThe third part of your relationship to nature is how it makes you feel.  There’s no question: you can’t get the same feeling you get looking at a giant redwood anywhere but in a redwood forest.   Among species that may have little or no suitable climate left in California, however, are its coastal redwoods and sequoias.

Such impacts of climate change on nature are not confined to California.   Many other reports indicate that global warming is redefining our relationship to nature worldwide.  As with other impacts, this one can be partially mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but also will require some new management strategies for preserving nature in the age of global warming.  California, in particular, has a lot to lose.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recently published Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. You can read more on this topic in his blog. Photos by the author.

Barnosky is scheduled to appear Saturday as part of Berkeley’s “Cal Day” activities. His talk is scheduled for noon at the Valley Life Sciences Bldg, Room 2060, followed by a book-signing at the T-Rex (which is hard to miss).