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Science offers a window into climate change

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/12/16 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Explore

As coastal cities are caught off guard by “sunny day floods,” no less subtle evidence that climate changes is being felt across the U.S. has scientists, naturalists and policy makers raising concerns. They say, climate change is no longer a theoretical idea; it is being felt in the form of more severe floods, drought, and temperature swings.

All up and down the east coast, residents from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami Beach, Florida have reported property suddenly inundated with flood waters—on sunny days. More systematic and long-term concerns are coming in across the continent.

It has led to serious discussions—about provisions needed to forestall the worst of the global warming crisis.

<br /><br />Images: Cleveland Museum of Natural History

At this year’s Conservation Symposium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, scientist after scientist stepped to the podium to report on the many ways climate can be linked to large-scale mortality events for species ranging from bumble bees to amphibians to Northeast Ohio trees.

In charts and graphs, computer models and research they now include climate change as a culprit. They are sanguine that the Great Lakes will not be the mild-mannered place many here have grown up to expect—if carbon emissions persist at the same levels.

“Without a doubt there’s a changing climate going on,” said Louis Iverson, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Iverson researches how climate change will affect trees and birds. He has developed models for 135 tree species and 150 bird species on potential impacts of several scenarios of climate change.

His office is looking at two possible futures: a ‘Harsh’ landscape where Americans are unable to slow the profligate burn of fossil fuel-power, and a slightly more forgiving scenario where ‘Mild’ behavior change is felt.

“We use a simulation of migration over one hundred years to estimate potential [loss and gain] of trees into the new, suitable habitat...via climate change,” Iverson explains.

Iverson predicts that by the year 2,100 Northeast Ohio will look considerably changed; cool climate trees like sugar maples will fall prey to disease, while hot and dry loving specimens of pine will replace them.

He said the loss will be felt in the maple sugar industry. Ohio taps very few (2%) of its sugar maple trees for syrup. Under the Harsh scenario, the domestic share of the industry, 2.3 million gallons, will diminish. “Only 35% of habitat in U.S. will be left for sugar maple.”

The loss of sugar maples will be felt in the forests of the Midwest where summer temperatures of 86 degrees and above are predicted to increase in frequency to 80-100 days, he added.

Opportunity cost of inaction makes a switch from coal to renewables attractive.

“In the Midwest, we have less solar and wind than in the West,” estimates Iverson, who showed a picture of himself and his wife flashing smiles and thumbs up in front of a 32 solar panel, 10kW array and a Ford Focus EV model. The solar panels power their car and a geothermal heat/cooling pump in their home.

It was a message repeated by Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden President and CEO, Clem Hamilton.

“Ohio could have a Mediterranean climate,” he said. “Osage orange, shortleaf pine, the eastern red cedar that you see in the Southeastern U.S. today will be winners.”

Red and swamp oaks will be losers to southern species like the post and blackjack oak.

Hamilton’s response, admittedly controversial, is to start planting the predicted winners, also known as “assisted migration.”

“The die is cast,” Dr. Hamilton concludes. “It’s not like we can turn back the clock. Most tree species will not be able to track to changing conditions and find new ranges.”

Roberta Muehlheim, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, discussed her published research on the ranavirus, a disease that has reduced the amphibian population to an alarming degree. Frogs and salamanders have survived major extinction events in the past, but scientists now have a front row seat to their struggle, coinciding with the age of global warming.

“Thirty two percent of the world’s amphibians—which have survived over 3 million years and 5 extinction events—have become extinct in the last few decades,” she concludes. “They have become the icon of a biodiversity crisis.”

It is a deeply disturbing pattern that figures to reshape our landscape in significant and possibly long-lasting ways.

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