Wildlife

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Rising Temps Taking a Toll on Lizards

The mesquite lizard is a member of the Sceloporus genus. Sinervo's study included 48 species of Sceloporus.

Sinervo's study included 48 species of the genus Sceloporus, of which the mesquite lizard (above) is a member.

A new study published this week in the journal Science finds that local lizard populations around the world are going extinct, likely due to climate change.  According to the research, conducted by a team of scientists including Barry Sinervo, a herpetologist at UC Santa Cruz, four percent of the world’s lizard populations have disappeared in the last 35 years, and another 20% of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080 if global temperatures continue to rise.

Using field observation and experiments, and computer modeling, Sinervo and his team determined that increased daytime temperatures in some areas have shortened the amount of time each day during which lizards can forage for food. The data–and that of collaborating scientists on five continents–indicates that higher temperatures and reduced feeding time correlates with the pattern of local extinctions among lizard species across the globe (the Science website has a slideshow explaining how the research was conducted).

Sinervo described his research today on the NPR program Science Friday as part of a panel discussing modern extinctions.  He was joined by UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tony Barnosky and San Francisco State Biology professor Vance Vredenberg.  Christopher Joyce reported on the study’s findings yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Campus as Climate Microcosm

Felt Reservoir, Stanford University  (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Felt Reservoir, Stanford University. Photo: Gretchen Weber

On a recent weekend, a couple of dozen hearty souls hiked more than 20 miles across the sprawling lands of Stanford University, to learn about global warming and see first-hand how the changing climate is affecting the campus.  It was the fourth annual “Walk the Farm” outing, a trek organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and led by its Executive Director, Jon Christensen.  Each year, the hike takes a different route through Stanford’s more than 8,000 acres, and is designed to use the university as a microcosm for a different global theme.  This year’s was climate change.

Throughout the 12-hour day, Stanford researchers joined the hikers to talk about the effects of climate change on the campus and region, as well as the related research taking place at the university.   Biology professor Carol Boggs spoke about her research on the Bay checkerspot butterfly, its extirpation in the region, and plans for a possible future reintroduction of the species on campus.  Other presenters included climate scientists Chris Field and Steven Schneider, and biologist Scott Loarie.

Watch this six-minute video for an overview of this year’s Walk the Farm hike and highlights from some of the talks along the way:

Hear more from Carol Boggs about the Bay checkerspot butterfly:

Scott Loarie explains how a rapidly changing climate is posing challenges for species migration in the video below:

CA Power Plants Must Find New Cooling Methods

California’s electrical power generators will be scrambling for new ways to cool their turbines, now that state regulators have ordered a phase-out of  “once-through cooling.” The practice, which has been under study by regulators since at least 2005, requires sucking in billions of gallons of cold ocean or river water and then returning it at higher temperatures. Nineteen major power plants across the state, including California’s only two commercial nuclear plants, are currently using once-through cooling.

Sea water used for cooling at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Photo: Craig Miller

Sea water spews from an outlet after being used for cooling at PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Photo: Craig Miller

Prior to Tuesday’s vote by the Water Resources Control Board, the head of that body’s ocean unit testified that once-through cooling systems kill 2.6 million fish, 19 billion fish larvae and 57 seals, sea lions and sea turtles each year, Dow Jones reported.

According to the Board’s summary:

“The proposed policy establishes technology-based standards to implement federal Clean Water Act section 316(b) and reduce the harmful effects associated with cooling water intake structures on marine and estuarine life.”

The rules require that companies phase out the practice and install equipment that reduces impact on marine ecosystems within the next several years.  Some generators have warned that the high cost of complying with the regulations could force them to shut some plants down.

For more on the practice of “once through cooling” and its effects on marine life, listen to Amy Standen’s Quest radio report from Monday.

Spring Comes Sooner, Some Species Suffer

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Spring in the United States comes ten days sooner than it did just 20 years ago, according to scientists on a media call Tuesday.   This phenomenon, known as “spring creep” (or “season creep“), may be good news for flip-flop fans, but it doesn’t always work out well for native species in certain habitats.  According to Reuters, scientists on the call (which was sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists) explained that when spring comes earlier, it doesn’t just bring warm weather sooner — it actually throws off the balance of entire ecosystems by encouraging the spread of invasive species, many of which are better able to adapt to the changing conditions than are native plants and animals.  In the American West, warmer weather is already shrinking the habitat of the American pika, and more of it could make wildfires more frequent and intense.

California Water Update: A Mostly Adequate Year

87760251Almost everywhere you look this week, California is dry. By which we mean the state is experiencing the first truly warm, rainless week since a series of Pacific storms blew through the state in mid-January.

Hydrologists for the state Department of Water Resources and the federal California-Nevada River Forecast Center expect the warm temperatures to trigger the first significant surge of snowmelt for the season. With slightly above-average snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada, that should help continue to raise reservoir levels. Our 2009-2010 rainy season is likely to go down in water history as adequate–short of hopes for a wet year but an improvement on the past three winters, which were much drier than average.

Admittedly, that’s the view from the city, where we get our water out of taps and garden hoses. The picture for agricultural users is not nearly as bright, as we were reminded earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an updated allocation for its customers in the Central Valley. The bureau offered a good news-bad news scenario. For CVP customers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the news was mostly good. Agricultural contractors there will get at least 50% of promised deliveries this year; municipal and industrial customers will get 75%. South of the Delta, the news is not so good. Municipal and industrial users will get 75%, but farm customers are guaranteed just a quarter of the water they want.

That 25% zone south of the Delta includes the Westlands Water District and other areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Delta that have suffered severe water shortages, due mostly to the state’s prolonged dry spell and, less directly, to restrictions imposed on Delta pumping to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

That’s the same area for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to secure extra water this year–even if it meant overriding provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Feinstein’s effort to attach a water amendment to a federal jobs bill failed, but the move apparently prodded the Department of the Interior–the parent agency of the Bureau of Reclamation–to try to find more water for Westlands and its neighbors. This week’s allocation announcement included assurances that the department is still working to secure additional water for west side farmers.

The state Department of Water Resources, which also ships water from the Delta to customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond via the California Aqueduct, also issued an updated allocation announcement this week. The department said that for now it’s sticking with its guarantee of 15 percent of requested deliveries this year.

Why such a low figure? The department says it’s because of continuing “poor hydrological conditions” in the Feather River drainage that feeds the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville. The main symptom of those conditions is the lake’s storage level, now just 57% of average for mid-March. For contrast, look at California’s main federal reservoir, Lake Shasta, less than 100 miles away from Oroville as the crow flies. It’s got 104% of average storage for the date (not to be confused with percent of capacity).

Here’s my amateur, off-the-cuff runoff-watcher’s observation of what’s behind the difference: The Shasta drainage, which captures the upper reaches of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers as well as lesser streams, has benefited from several storms since mid-January that dumped heavy rains throughout the watershed. Those same storms have dropped lighter amounts of rain further south and east, including over the Feather watershed. The same effect can be seen in the American River basin, which flows into Folsom Lake. A month or so of intense precipitation last year eventually filled the lake; lighter rains this year have led to lower-than-average storage levels in Folsom (84 percent as of this week).

The final word on the water season, of course, will come from the Sierra snowpack and runoff. Stay tuned for the snow melt.

Check recent levels of California’s major reservoirs on the map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

(Some) Pika Persist at Low Elevations

Photo courtesy of the Forest Service.

Photo: US Forest Service

American Pika are living at lower elevations and surviving warmer temperatures than previously thought, according to a paper in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research (available for download at the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station’s site).

One of the authors, Connie Millar, said she saw pika far more often and in a broader elevation range than she had expected she would. Millar, a Forest Service ecologist, found all those pika using a method she developed to quickly determine if pika are living in places where one would expect to find them.

Pika, cute little rabbit relatives that live in high elevations throughout the West, have been in the news lately. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned for the pika to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2007, citing climate change as a threat to survival of the cold-adapted species. Last month, under a new administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the pika, explaining that though some populations do seem to be in trouble, most are doing fine so far. (Climate Watch has followed the pika story; see previous posts here, here, and here).

This newest study would seem to support the federal decision. But Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD, says that though the study “provides a snapshot of where pika are now, long-term in-depth studies have found that pika populations are declining.”

The majority of those declining populations are in Nevada’s Great Basin, at relatively low elevations for pika colonies. One paper Wolf cites was recently published in Ecological Applications. Authors Erik Beever and Chris Ray concluded that shrinking pika populations in the Great Basin could be partially attributed to climate change. Pika have an extremely narrow band of temperature tolerance and can suffer heat stroke in temperatures comfortable to humans.

Wolf and Millar are both members of the California Pika Consortium, a newly formed research group. Millar plans to distribute her pika survey to colleagues in the consortium in order to continue gathering data on locations of pika colonies.

Meanwhile, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service has denied federal protection to the pika, CBD is still working on gaining state-level protection in California. CBD biologists consider the pika to be a bellwether species for climate change.

Mapping California’s Shifting Climate

By Gretchen Weber & Molly Samuel

A companion radio piece to this post aired on The California Report.

Map from The Nature Conservancy showing projected drought conditions for 2070-2100

Projected drought conditions for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Climate change is causing conservationists to rethink traditional methods of protecting lands and ecosystems. The conventional strategy of setting aside a specific parcel of land (and increasingly, ocean) to protect a particular community of organisms may no longer be sufficient in a rapidly changing climate. While greenhouse gas reduction and climate change mitigation remains a top priority for most conservationists, land managers have begun developing adaptation strategies that take the effects of a warming planet into account.

“We have a fantastic conservation success story in having conserved a huge network of protected areas,” says Healy Hamilton, director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences. “The issue with those protected areas is that they all have static boundaries around them and they work to protect what lies within them,  So the plants and animals that are there are well-protected, as long as they stay there.” Trouble is, the habitat isn’t staying put.

Climate has “Velocity”

The world’s ecosystems will need to move about a quarter of a mile each year to keep up with climate change, according to a recent study published in Nature (link is to the first paragraph of the paper; the full article is only available to subscribers, but you can read a press release about the about the study).

Researchers from the Carnegie Institution, Stanford, the California Academy of Sciences, and UC Berkeley collaborated on the paper, which describes climate belts sweeping north and south from the equator–and also moving uphill–as the world warms.

Hamilton, who co-authored the study, told a packed house at the Center for Biological Diversity in January, that “Climates are on the move. It’s not just a slow unfolding, it’s a radical, abnormal process. Everywhere we look, shifts are already occurring.”

And under these changing conditions, she said, plants and animals have three choices: “They can stay and adapt, they can shift with their climate, or they can go locally extinct if they can’t move fast enough.”

The study’s lead author, Scott Loarie, a fellow at the Carnegie Institution, explains that climate change forecasts are commonly measured in degrees per year, but the authors of this study wanted to know how those temperature changes would affect what can live where. So they used temperature “velocity” (in kilometers per year) to measure how fast regional climate conditions are moving as the planet heats up.

It turns out that the belts move at different rates, depending on the landscape. In the Amazon Basin, velocity is relatively high. It’s a large and homogeneous ecosystem, so as the temperature changes there, plants and animals will have to travel a long way to keep up with the climate in which they’ve evolved to thrive. In a place like California, with its microclimates and variable topography, the velocity is lower. Some species may need merely to migrate to a nearby north-facing–and therefore cooler–slope. Others will have to head north and toward the coast. Climate models forecast that eventually the Bay Area will look more like Southern California, and the Bay Area’s current climate will be located somewhere north of us.

Projected Heat Stress in California for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected Heat Stress in California for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Mapping a Moving Climate

The Nature Conservancy of California has attempted to map some of these trends (see above and below). Scientists averaged together several different climate models to create a picture of California’s future in terms of temperature and precipitation. They then applied that projection to habitats for specific species, to make predictions about how ranges may shift. The maps show both how much areas are likely to change, as well as how certain the predictions are.

“What we’re trying to understand is how does the way we protect species in the future need to change with a changing climate,” says Rebecca Shaw, Director of Conservation for the Nature Conservancy of California. “The kind of strategies you employ and how much you spend is really going to be dependent on how certain you are about change in the future.”

For example, she says some parts of the Sierra are not likely to change very much over the next century, but some places like the Mojave Desert are expected to change a great deal. That kind of information could be useful for land managers trying to plan for the future. For example, in areas that are expected to undergo great change, it might be more important to preserve corridors, or connecting stretches of protected lands, so that populations can move as the climate changes, if they are unable to adapt where they are.

Loarie says “assisted migration”–helping specific species move to new locations–is expensive, unpredictable, and unrealistic. Instead, he, too, corridors for plants and animals to safely follow their climate–if they can keep up. Species like the American pika, already living on mountaintops, can’t go any farther uphill. Their habitats could disappear completely, or, as Loarie says, “they’ll pop off the top.”

There are limitations to the predictions one can make with temperature velocity measurements. What temperature changes will do to fog, for instance, is still unknown, so it’s not clear yet where the redwoods will need to move in the next 100 or so years.

To enable the second option, Hamilton agrees with Loarie. she says the conservation community needs to rethink its traditional strategy of protecting lands. Instead of protecting specific parcels of land and expecting them the stay the same over time, conservationists need to expect change, and to create connectivity in the landscape so that species can move when and if they need to.

Projected changes in California Salamander habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Salamander habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Blue Oak habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Blue Oak habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

No Protection for American Pika

American Pika, Photo: Doug Van Gausig

American Pika, Photo: Doug Von Gausig

The high-alpine rabbit relative, the American pika, does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decision was required by a court order stemming from a lawsuit brought by the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity against the agency, for failing to respond to a petition submitted by the Center in 2007.

The CBD petition cited climate change as the cause for population decline in pika populations in the mountains of Nevada’s Great Basin. Because the creatures can die from overheating at temperatures as low as 78 degrees, and research suggests that a warming climate has led to major losses in lower-elevation populations, pushing pika to migrate to higher elevations. Some biologists are concerned that if temperatures rise high enough, they may reach the mountain-tops and run out of hospitable habitat.

“By not listing the pika, the decision is not respecting the best available science,” said Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist at the CBD. “The science is very clear. Scientists in the Great Basin will tell you that their research is showing that pika are disappearing and that the losses are linked to climate change: heat stress in the summer and loss of snowpack in the winter.”

Wolf said that the federal agency is required to use the “best available science” in making its ruling. She said that the CBD may challenge the decision on this basis.

“The (government’s) interpretation of the studies is that even though pika are disappearing and will continue to disappear, they will be able to cope,” said Wolf. “That’s not consistent with what we’re seeing. It’s a bizarre argument that pika will adapt. There’s no basis for that claim.

Had the federal agency ruled the other way, the pika would have been the first animal to make the endangered list as a direct result of climate change.  Last year, the Obama Administration denied a similar petition for the Alaskan spotted seal, Wolf said.

The scientific community itself is split about whether the pika warrants a federal listing. While research shows that some populations of pika are declining, such as in the Great Basin, not everyone agrees that the entire species is facing extinction.

The CBD also has a pika case still pending at the state level.  The California Fish and Game Commission has twice denied CBD requests for a status review of the American pika. The organization is currently challenging the state’s second denial.

For more background on the CBD’s efforts to list the pika, see Craig Miller’s blog posts from May 2009.

Polar Bears and Sea Ice: Sorting it Out

87514496A recent post I wrote to highlight a radio discussion of the current plight of polar bears, drew a challenge from Russell Steele, one of our regular readers. Steele questioned some of the scientific conclusions underlying dire predictions for the bears.

To help sort some of this out, I asked for responses from two highly regarded scientists in the field. Here’s a response to the specific reader challenge from Mark Serreze, Director of the National Snow & Ice Data Center, in Boulder, CO:

It is unclear what Mr. Steele is trying to get at with reference to the seasonal cycles in sea ice extent from the AMSR-E data. The AMSR-E data, while valuable, only go back to 2002. Through combining SSM/I and SMMR satellite data with other information sources for earlier years, we have a decent record of Arctic sea ice extent going back to the early 1950s. The relevant issue is the long-term decline in end-of-summer (September) ice extent evident in this record, with the extreme September minima of recent years (represented in the short AMSR-E record) serving as exclamation points. The observed rate of September ice loss exceeds expectations from nearly all climate models.

I also turned to Waleed Abdalati. Now director of the Earth Sciences Observation Center at the University of Colorado, Abdalati is a veteran of the Cryospheric Sciences and Terrestrial Hydrology programs at NASA, and one of the most articulate people I’ve heard speak on the subject of polar ice. He offers the following:

I am not an expert on polar bears, but I do think it is safe to say that
 their primary habitat, the Arctic sea ice, is severely threatened.  I, and 
most of my colleagues believe we are well on our way to an ice-free Arctic
 in summer any time between this decade and the next 40 years.

This
 is because of two things:  1) it will be decades before the ocean has 
finished its response to present-day greenhouse forcing, so the impacts of 
what we’ve done already have not been fully realized; and 2) the loss of
 sea ice is self-compounding: when it starts to shrink, exposing a 
darker more (heat) absorbing ocean underneath, the likelihood of its continued
 shrinking is greater (ice melts, exposes darker ocean, absorbs more heat, 
melts more ice, exposes darker ocean, and so-on).

Of course the flipside
 of this is that as ice starts to grow, it is more inclined to grow, but
 against the backdrop of the increased warming, the former is far more likely 
than the latter. Finally, as thick multi-year ice disappears, it is
 replaced with thinner and younger ice that is more vulnerable to surface 
melt from the atmosphere, bottom melting from sea water, and being carried
 away to lower, warmer latitudes by ocean current and wind.

So back to the polar bears: If their habitat disappears and they are unable 
to hunt seals, their main source of food, they seem to stand little or no
 chance of survival. I am not a wildlife biologist but its hard for me to 
believe they as a population can sustain themselves on land and with only a
 seasonally-present ice cover. In some cases, the fact that they face more
 challenges on sea ice than in the past, has driven them to forage inland,
 creating the illusion in some people’s minds that their populations are 
increasing, because there are more sightings on land. Who knows? Maybe 
they’ll evolve to hibernate in late summer, when there is no ice, and hunt
 the rest of the year.

There is an added effect that doesn’t get much attention.  There was a 
fascinating study by a Canadian Biologist (Ian Stirling) and a sea ice
 expert (Claire Parkinson) [Stirling, I., and C.L. Parkinson. 2006. Possible 
Effects of Climate Warming on Selected Populations of Polar Bears (Ursus
maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 59(3): 261-275.], which suggested 
that the bears are also losing weight, and approaching the weights at which 
they have historically not been able to bear cubs.  So not only is the
population threatened by starvation, the ability to replenish the population
 seems diminished.

I don’t believe we can say anything with absolute certainty,
 so I, myself would not make the statement that the polar bears are doomed–but I will say that the outlook for them, in my view, looks very, very bad.

Author: Polar Bears Doomed No Matter What We Do

US Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Because our charter at Climate Watch is to examine climate change from the California perspective, you don’t see a lot here about melting ice caps and imperiled polar bears. But Michael Krasny’s interview with Richard Ellis on KQED’s Forum program is well worth an hour of your time.

Ellis is the author of On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear (Random House, 2009) and it’s fair to say that he managed to stun Krasny with a declaration that the species is “doomed,” no matter what we might try to do to save it at this point. Ellis says there is already too much warming in the pipeline (what scientists call “committed” warming) to reverse the disintegration of the bears’ arctic habitat.

Polar bear populations have been a topic of persistent confusion, recently amplified in an op-ed piece written by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for The Washington Post.

According to the advocacy group Polar Bears International, there is little room for doubt about the animal’s decline. The organization’s website breaks down the numbers, which point to a “scientifically documented decline in the best-studied population, Western Hudson Bay, and predictions of decline in the second best-studied population, the Southern Beaufort Sea.”

The PBI analysis goes on to explain that:

The Western Hudson Bay population has dropped by 22% since 1987. The Southern Beaufort Sea bears are showing the same signs of stress the Western Hudson Bay bears did before they crashed, including smaller adults and fewer yearling bears.

At the most recent meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (Copenhagen, 2009), scientists reported that of the 19 sub-populations of polar bears, eight are declining, three are stable, one is increasing, and seven have insufficient data on which to base a decision. (The number of declining populations has increased from five at the group’s 2005 meeting.)

Regardless of whether you share the conclusions of Ellis and PBI about the future of the “poster child for global warming,” the Forum interview is a fascinating hour.