Tag Archives: Climate change

A Climate Change Tourist in America

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Following on from my recent post about A train ride through American climate change, my wife Karin has extended this and written a great piece called A Climate Change Tourist in America for Medium.

It’s a really beautifully observed and thoughtful piece of writing that weaves together themes that I would never have considered dealing with: aspects of life, love, tourism, poverty, suicide and desperation, all linked by climate change.  It’s only a 10 minute read: do yourself a favour and take a look.

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Monarchs and Milkweeds Workshop summary, Oak Spring, Virginia, June 2019

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As I recounted in my last post about a train ride through American climate change, my wife Karin and I have been in the USA for the past couple of weeks, visiting colleagues in the west and ultimately heading eastwards to Virginia for a workshop on monarch butterflies and their milkweed hosts.  The meeting was organised by Anurag Agrawal, professor at Cornell University and author of the recent book Monarchs and Milkweed, highly recommended to anyone interested in the natural history of plants and insects.  The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is an iconic migrating  species that travels from Mexico to Canada and back, over the course of a few generations.  This behaviour, and their vast over-wintering assemblages, have become the focus of intense efforts to understand their ecology and biology.  Their caterpillar host plants are mainly milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and bringing together both plant and animal scientists is important for gaining a fuller over view of the issues facing the monarchs and the milkweeds, and how both can be conserved in a time of anthropogenic change.

The venue for the workshop was Oak Spring, Upperville, the former home of Paul and Rachel (“Bunny”) Mellon which has been turned into the base of operations for a philanthropic foundation specialising in plant science, horticulture, and botanical art.  The Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF) is “dedicated to inspiring and facilitating scholarship and public dialogue on the history and future of plants, including the culture of gardens and landscapes and the importance of plants for human well-being”.  The OSGF generously funded the workshop, including accommodation and travel for participants.  This brought together a small group of scientists from the USA, the UK and Brazil, together with an artist, a milkweed horticulturalist, and two science writers.  Their brief was to discuss the latest developments in our understanding of monarch butterflies, their decline and conservation, and the taxonomy, evolution and ecology of milkweeds and the wider groups of Lepidoptera and the plant family Apocynaceae to which these organisms belong.  My invitation to take part was due to the research on the pollination ecology of this family I’ve conducted, spanning about twenty five years and culminating in a recently published assessment of the diversity of pollination systems in Apocynaceae.

First things first: Oak Spring is one of the most tranquil, beautiful, and inspiring places where it’s ever been my privilege to stay.  Here’s a few photographs, but they really do not do justice to the buildings and garden, their setting, nor to the unique atmosphere of Oak Spring.

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So to the science.  The workshop started with a set of short presentations on our recent research findings and the motivations for our interests in these organisms.  On the second day we then moved on to discussing ideas for future collaborations between the participants and how that work might be funded in the future.  Presentations and discussions were mainly held in the Basket House, named for obvious reasons:

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Each of us was also interviewed on camera to build an online archive of the work we do and why we do it.

The advantage of face-to-face meetings such as this, and why Skype and so forth can never fully replace them, is the free-flowing conversations that occur within the formal sessions and outside them.  Among the many things that I learned from presentations and discussions were:

  • The California monarch population has declined by almost 90% this year and there’s an urgent need to understand why this has happened.  Climate change has been implicated, especially in relation to the increased frequency of wildfires in this region.
  • Existing methods of nectar extraction from milkweed flowers may strongly underestimate the volume available to flower visitors, and overestimate the sugar concentration.  Using a small centrifuge to spin out the nectar seems to be the most effective method.
  • Asclepias arrived in the Americas (probably from Africa) some 10 million years ago (mya).  However Danaus only arrived about 3.7 mya, so there was a long period of time in which the plant was not co-evolving with one of its major herbivores.
  • There is strong evidence of migrations along the Andes by a close relative of the monarch, Danaus erippus.  Migrations in this group of butterflies therefore extends beyond the iconic D. plexippus.
  • Sonoran Desert Asclepias are sister group to the rest of the New World Asclepias spp.  The exact route by which the African ancestors made it to the Americas is unknown, it could be via Asia and the Bering Strait, or across the Atlantic by way of island stepping stones.  Either way, the phylogenetic position of the Sonoran milkweeds implies that a lot of Asclepias species have gone extinct over the past 10 million years.
  • Climate change seems to be resulting in more complex and unpredictable windows of opportunity for monarch egg laying and caterpillar development.  The monarchs are most successful in late spring and late summer, but not in all years.
  • Likewise, extreme precipitation of the kind I recently documented in the USA is also likely to have a negative impact on the monarchs and their host plants.
  • There is molecular evidence that monarch butterflies went through a huge genetic bottleneck in the 1960s-1970s, for reasons that are not altogether clear.

All of these findings, and more that there isn’t space to document, point to a need for further research to better understand these organisms if we wish to secure their futures.

By the end of the workshop we had made some concrete decisions on future steps:

  •  The African members of the genus Asclepias, plus about 20 other closely related genera, require more critical taxonomic and phylogenetic assessment in order to understand their systematic relationship to the North and South American Asclepias species.
  • A poster (or possibly series of posters) will be produced that explain the ecology of the monarch, its relationship with milkweeds, the patterns of migration, and the value of milkweeds as nectar sources for a diverse range of pollinators.
  • We will explore a multi-agency grant application to further develop the collaborations between participants.

The final day of the workshop involved a field trip around Virginia to see some of the local milkweed species, many of which live in woodland.  That surprised me: I always envision Asclepias spp. as grassland or desert plants.  The leader of the field trip, Mark Fishbein, had a hit list of 8 species that he wanted us to see and in the end we located all of them, including a rare hybrid population of A. syriaca x A. exaltata, plus the tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica planted in the OSGF garden, plus the distant relative dogbane Apocynum cannabinum.  Here are some images from that day:

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Searching for milkweeds along Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

 

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Poke milkweed – Asclepias exaltata

 

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Hunting that elusive hybrid milkweed!

 

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Caterpillar of the monarch butterfly feeding on a milkweed

 

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Alessandro Rapini intent on getting a good photo of the A. syriaca x A. exaltata hybrid

 

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A bumblebee and a butterfly visiting A. exaltata

 

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Purple milkweed – Asclepias purpurascens

 

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Common milkweed – Asclepias syriaca – with a visiting skipper butterfly

 

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Climbing milkvine – Matelea obliqua – a member of a largely fly-pollinated group of New World asclepiads

 

Thanks to my fellow workshoppers for such a stimulating and enjoyable meeting, and to all the staff at Oak Spring for making us feel so welcome.  Particular thanks go to Prof. Sir Peter Crane who, as President of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, was hugely supportive of the workshop, and to Angie Ritterpusch, Head of Events and Guest Services, for logistical and organisational support.

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biogeography, Butterflies, Climate change, Evolution

A train ride through American climate change

For the past week Karin and I have been travelling in the USA, starting in Denver, driving to Gunnison, then on to Grand Junction, Colorado, to catch the Amtrak California Zephyr train for a 36 hour trip to Chicago. Our final destination is a workshop on conservation of monarch butterflies and their milkweed host plants near Washington DC next week.

I’ll post something about the Gunnison leg of our journey at a later date, and of course the workshop.  But as I write the first draft of this post, we are passing through flooded Iowa farmland and I wanted to get some thoughts down about a repeating theme of our travels so far: climate change.

Our original destination in Colorado was the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), an almost legendary research venue for pollination ecologists. We were meeting up with my long-time friends and colleagues Nick Waser and Mary Price, with whom I’ve collaborated on various papers since the mid-90s. However we never made it to RMBL: unseasonably late snow had not yet been ploughed from the road up to the site and the only way in and out was with skis or snowshoes. Some hardy researchers were already there, but the limited time we had in Colorado made it impractical for us to make the journey:

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Unseasonable snow does not, of course, climate change make; but that was our first hint that there’s something odd about the weather in North America at the moment.

Fast forward a few days and we picked up the Zephyr in Grand Junction, the start of an incredible journey through spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery and then down into the flat agricultural lands of Nebraska and Iowa. We had a sleeping cabin and, following a stop in Denver, we drifted off to the slow chug-a-chug of the Zephyr’s wheels and the occasional distant whistle from the front engine – it’s a loooong train!

The next morning we were still in Nebraska and it was then that things started to get both interesting and worrisome. One of the conductors gave us a running commentary about the heavy rainfall that had caused flooding in this region during May and June – see this recent account from NASA’s Earth Observatory.  As you can see from the images below (snapped from the train as we passed, so excuse the quality), flooding is still an issue along the Platt and Missouri Rivers, both of which had over-topped their adjacent levees at various points. A conservation area, the Fontanelle Forest Preserve, had turned from woodland into wooded swamp:

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This is not the river Missouri – it’s actually about quarter of a mile beyond those trees:

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Adjacent farmland was completely flooded shortly after corn crops had been planted. Farm buildings were washed out and their occupants had been forced to leave with little notice. These are areas that do not normally flood and the impact of this heavy rain has been significant and will last long into the future:2019-06-05 09.51.37

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Infrastructure such as roads and bridges were also damaged.  The Union Pacific rail bridge across the Platt was partly washed away and has had to be rapidly rebuilt, but only after a new access road was established:

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Everywhere we looked there was flooding:

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A nearby industrial estate and trailer park had also been flooded, with a lock-up garage of classic American cars under seven feet of water, and the residents and businesses have been told to leave permanently. This area cannot be guaranteed flood-free in the future and will be leveled and allowed to return to nature:

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A local portaloo company was also flooded out and we observed the plastic toilets washed up along a lakeside that used to be a field of corn.  Superficially amusing, until you realise that this represents the loss of someone’s livelihood:

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Along the train tracks ballast had been piled up to begin a programme of raising the track bed. Residents of the nearby town of Pacific Junction (population about 470) have been told to either sell their homes to the government, and move out, or face ever-rising costs of flood insurance – see this recent local newspaper article. Pacific Junction used to be an important rail terminus and some of the families have been there for generations.   Let’s be clear what this means for these people – they are displaced from their homes, they are climate refugees in their own country.

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After we had passed through this area I chatted with one of the train stewards who mentioned that his Louisiana home had been flooded out in August 2016. He was forced to pay $400 per year flood insurance to protect his belongings and home from future events, in a part of the state that had no prior history of flooding.  “But your President says that climate change is not a problem” I probed.  He gave me a look that said more than words could ever convey. “Don’t get me started on that” he replied. A nearby passenger, a young guy, chimed in: “We’d be here all day!”  Trump’s rhetoric is changing slightly and, if anything, becoming less coherent and more deranged as he talked yesterday of “good climate” and “weather going both ways”.

All along the train route to Chicago we saw the same thing, over hundreds of miles and hour after hour – partially or completely flooded fields, crops washed away or submerged under water.  Large ponds in otherwise pristine, planted fields of parallel lines where the first growth of wheat was showing:

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Karin tells me that the flooding around the Mississippi was even worse, but I’m afraid that I slept through it; long train journeys are wonderful, but tiring!

This is just a snap shot of what climate change is doing to the USA at the moment; it’s creating climate refugees in a number of states – see this article for instance. Wildlife seems to be the only thing that’s benefiting as nature reclaims farmland and urban areas: the flooded fields we passed were full of herons, wildfowl, and other water birds. But in the longer term who knows what these changing weather patterns will bring for biodiversity and human society. The only certainty is that change is coming.

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Biodiversity and climate change: a hierarchy of options

Conservation hierarchy image

The related issues of how to conserve biodiversity and reduce the impacts of climate change have never had such a high public profile as they do at the moment.  The activities of Extinction Rebellion caught the attention of the media around the world, for example here in London.  Numerous organisations, cities, regions and countries have declared a Climate Emergency.  And IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Serviceshas released a summary of its first global assessment with the full report due later this year, and explicitly makes the link between conservation of biodiversity and reducing the effects of climate change.

Timed to coincide with all of this, the University of Cambridge has announced that it is setting up a Centre for Climate Repair in order to explore hi-tech “fixes” to climate change, such as spraying sea water into the atmosphere in order to reduce warming at the poles, and sucking CO2 out of the air using large machines.  I think it’s fair to say that this was met with some scepticism on social media; here’s some examples:

Other people have pointed out that nature-based solutions are the most likely to be successful, and provide a boost for biodiversity at the same time:

All of this reminds me of the Waste Hierarchy in its various iterations – you know the sort of thing – “Reduce > Reuse > Recycle”, where reduction in waste produced is best, followed by reuse of waste resources, with recycling being the least good option (but still better than just land-filling the waste).  As far as the link between conservation of biodiversity and reduction of the effects of climate change goes, there’s a parallel hierarchy – see the image at the top of this post – that sets out the order of priorities:

PROTECTION of ecosystems using the full force of national and international laws and conventions has got to be the top priority.  Otherwise any of the other activities will result in, at best, humanity running to catch up with what the world is losing.  Let’s stop cutting down ancient forests and degrading peatlands that have accumulated millions of tons of carbon over thousands of years!

FIX – by which I mean the kind of hi-tech solutions proposed above – should be the lowest priority: they do little or nothing directly for biodiversity and there is no compelling evidence that they will even work as intended.

Between these two are RESTORATION of currently degraded habitats (such as re-wetting peatlands as in the Great Fen Project) and PLANTING of trees, which can be a form of habitat restoration under some circumstances.  Large scale examples of this include

Grain for Green – China’s attempt to restore vegetation to abandoned farmland to reduce soil erosion and flooding.

Great Green Wall – a multinational initiative in Africa aimed at restoring the vegetation on the southern edge of the Sahara to combat desertification and mitigate climate change.

While doing a bit of research for this blog post* I became aware that a Conservation Hierarchy has already been developed by the Convention on Biological Diversity but that really only deals with habitat destruction, mitigation of destructive activities, etc.  What I’m suggesting is related more to the direct link between conservation of biodiversity and mitigation of climate change.  So what to call this particular hierarchy?  Perhaps the BioCC Hierarchy?  Can anyone suggest a better name?  Maybe it doesn’t need a name at all, it just needs people to be aware of it and for governments to act logically.

 

*I googled the term “Conservation Hierarchy” – you get the quality of research you pay for on this blog….

 

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Have we broken the planet?

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A graph showing this year’s figures for area of global sea ice, in comparison with the same data for the past c. 40 years, was widely shared on Twitter yesterday, resulting in a lot of discussion and consternation.  I’m not on Twitter (yet…) and picked this up from Terry McGlynn’s Facebook feed.  The graph shows an anomalously low extent of sea ice compared with what we would expect at this time of the year, in fact a drop of about 25%.

As you can see, something looks to be seriously wrong.  For more discussion about the graph, see this piece over at The Verge.

I’ve not discussed climate change much on this blog, it’s not my area of specialism and there are plenty of other good bloggers out there who are far more knowledgeable than I.  But graphs like this are hugely worrying because they not only suggest that aspects of our climate may be at a tipping point where they change from one state/predictable pattern to another.  That’s a concern on a global level, because it’s strong evidence for global warming.  However the reduction in sea ice also has huge implications for the biodiversity that depends upon the ice.

If I hear any more news on this I’ll post it, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering whether perhaps the UK’s signing up for the Paris Climate Agreement this week is a bit too late.  As my colleague Duncan McCollin put it: “we’ve broken the planet”.  I hope he’s wrong.

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Virtual Conference on Ecology and Climate Change

Following on from what seemed to be a quite popular Virtual Conference on Pollinators, Pollination and Flowers I thought I’d mark this week’s Paris talks on tackling climate change with a second  “virtual conference” on the topic of climate change and how it may affect (and be affected by) natural and agricultural ecological systems.

This is a great set of talks* with some very thought-provoking ideas.  Hope you enjoy them.

Douglas Sheil  (Norwegian University of Life Sciences)

Do forests attract rain?

 

Hans Joosten (University of Griefswald)

For peat’s sake – bogs and climate change

 

Nicola Di Cosmo (Institute for Advanced Study)

Climate, conflict, and historical method

 

Ben Beard (NCEZID Centers for Disease Control)

Climate change, ecology, and disease emergence

 

Jennifer Cartwright and Bill Wolfe (USGS Tennessee Water Science Center)

Climate-sensitive, insular ecosystems of the Southeast U.S.

 

Nabil Nemer (American University of Beirut)

Are changes in insect patterns in the Lebanese Mountains evidence of climate change?

 

Lini Wollenberg (University of Vermont)

Climate Change Mitigation on Agriculture-Forest Landscapes

 

Tim Benton (University of Leeds)

Food and the future: climate and resilience

 

Feel free to discuss the talks in the comments section and to post links to other talks on the same topic.

 

*I’m assuming that, as all of these videos are in the public domain, none of the presenters or copyright owners objects to them being presented here.  If you do, please get in touch and I’ll remove it.

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Breaking news: “Drilling for oil in Alaska necessary to pay for damage caused by climate change”

In an interview with the BBC the Governor of Alaska has claimed that further oil exploration in his state is required in order to pay for the damage being caused by current climate change.

Huh?!

What next for common sense and logic?  Convicted burglars claiming that they have to rob more houses in order to pay court fines?

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