Menu
19 Mar 2009

With Temperatures Rising, Here Comes ‘Global Weirding’

They’re calling it “global weirding” – the way in which rising temperatures are causing species to change their ranges, the timing of their migrations, and the way they interact with other living things. And the implications of all this are only beginning to be understood.
By john waldman

The concept of “global weirding” is emerging as a notable complement to its cause, global warming. Coined by Hunter Lovins, a founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, it describes the consequences of the rise in average global temperatures, which are expected to amplify the abnormal: hotter heat spells, longer and sharper droughts, more violent storms, and more intense flooding.

Given anticipated warming trajectories, many of these physical changes are statistically predictable and can be fairly accurately modeled. But as an ecologist, I fear it is the alterations to the living realm where “weirdness” will be a most apropos, if not downright tepid, label. This is certainly the case in my area of study — the aquatic realm — where global weirding is already well underway.

Forecasted biological changes due to warming often are as rudimentary as plots on maps where a species’ heat tolerances are superimposed on modeled temperature increases. This initial, or “first order,” assessment
Warming is forcing the planet to launch a giant ecological experiment in which organisms will increasingly interact with other organisms.
usually results in calculations of the species’ range shifting poleward — often accentuating actual movements already detected. Thus, if you live north of the equator you may learn that some beetle, bird, or vine is advancing from the south and may be seen in your backyard by 2018. New information, to be sure, but so what? What of its interactions with other organisms, including you? That is, how will it fit in the speedily evolving ecosystem and will it play a new role? And what of the effects of other species deserting locations they’ve long inhabited?

In New York’s Hudson River estuary, for example, rainbow smelt historically ran up its many tributaries, where they were enthusiastically netted for food as the first anadromous fish to appear each spring. But as a boreal species at the southern end of its range in a warming river, the Hudson’s rainbow smelt runs faded in the late 20th century, with the last individuals seen in 1998 — part of its general retreat northward from the waters of New York and southern New England.

During the same period, a southern fish — the gizzard shad — invaded the Hudson. Now in spring, this commercially worthless species gluts some of the same tributaries where smelt once ran. Existing in great numbers and biomass, the gizzard shad likely plays a significant but still undefined role in the Hudson, and it has since hopped from river to river as far north as Maine. The size of the ecological “hole” left by the rainbow smelt can only be speculated on.

The next, or “second order,” question of species interactions is far more complex. Ecology is a young field, with basic processes still under investigation and the natural history information needed to minimally understand most creatures woefully inadequate. And yet, warming is forcing the planet to launch a giant ecological experiment in which organisms will increasingly interact with other organisms: Old dependencies will wither, while new contacts among them will emerge. Right now ecologists barely have the knowledge or tools to accurately predict the broader outcomes of changes to the simplest of interactions — between pairs of species.

But ecosystems are made up of myriad possible pairings, many exploitative in some way. Animals consume plants and also each other. The complexities embedded within a reasonably rich ecosystem are mind-boggling. Lake Okeechobee, Florida, has approximately 500 known species, but it is estimated that they engage in about 25,000 exploitative interactions. With warming, we can predict generally that there will be big winners, big losers, and draws among such species, but attempts to accurately predict these changes are far beyond our present capabilities.

A core biological issue with warming is that the very phenologies of plants and animals are changing. Phenology — a somewhat arcane word that, because of warming, is destined to become better known — means the relationship between physical conditions and the timing of ecological events. Lately, even relatively short-term monitoring is showing pronounced shifts towards earlier annual events, such as migrations associated with reproduction. The median nesting date for loggerhead turtles on Florida’s east coast, for example, has advanced 10 days in only 15 years; likewise, far up the Atlantic coast in Maine, the median date of capture of Atlantic salmon and alewife in two rivers has advanced more than a day per year in just 15 years. For both the turtles and the fishes, these advances in timing may create poorer matches to food sources — one more potential stress for species already in sharp decline.

A fundamental conflict underlying phenologies is that some life forms cue their annual life cycles to signals that haven’t changed — such as the northern hemisphere’s spring increase in sunlight — and others to temperature patterns, which are changing. The cumulative effects of changes in these linkages drive “third order” biotic changes — the broad community-wide shifts that are likely to affect the ways in which we live.

For example, in coastal waters of the northeastern U.S., the algae — or phytoplankton — that support the food chain bloom in late winter and early spring with the stimulus of increasing sunlight. Later, zooplankton
How will a shifting species fit in the speedily evolving ecosystem and will it play a new role?
that consume the algae ramp up reproduction after being stirred by rising water temperatures. The textbook model of this food chain contains enough of a time-lag between these episodes that the algae bloom reaches dense levels before being cropped by the zooplankton bloom, with excess, dying algae eventually spilling to the bottom as detritus that fertilizes waters deeper than photosynthesis can occur. Without this supplement from above, much of the sea’s bottom waters would be biological deserts.

This process has long supported rich harvests of commercially important ground fishes. But now there is evidence from the northeastern U.S. that the warmer waters allow the zooplankton bloom to occur earlier, shortening the lag following the algae bloom, which yields less detrital rain, at the cost of lessened production of bottom fishes. No one yet knows just how widespread this phenomenon is. But there is indication that top-water fishes have increased at the expense of bottom fishes in the North Atlantic, diminishing traditional fisheries.

A great concern with changes of these kinds is their potential irreversibility. Known as “regime shifts,” these changes often result in “alternative stable states” that resist going backwards. That is, to get back to an earlier state, not only must conditions be returned to what they were when the ecological changes began, but they must go an undetermined distance further back in time to overcome the resilience of the new stable state. Yet where warming is the driver forcing regime changes, the effect of higher temperatures has a forward momentum unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.

A fine example of regime shifts is in the Baltic Sea, for which the Helsinki Commission conducted analyses of a rich, multi-decadal data set of 75
Phytoplankton
NASA
Warming waters have led to a shift in timing of zooplankton and phytoplankton blooms. This NASA image shows a phytoplankton bloom, in turquoise and green, off Massachusetts in 2008.
physical, chemical, and biological ecosystem indicators that show unambiguous changes among alternative stable states. In the 1970’s, the Baltic was cooler and more saline than it is today. In recent years it has moved to a warmer, low salinity ecosystem. What’s striking is not the range of conditions seen in this brackish sea — where fresh and salt waters meet and, thus, variability would be expected — as much as the sheer stability across years once a new state has been reached.

Where the Baltic goes from here is of more than academic interest. Two major commercial fishes in the sea are bottom-dwelling codfish and a mid-water herring, called sprat. Studies show that warmer sea temperatures tend to favor sprat at the expense of cod, but it remains to be seen whether the large-scale climate variations to come — which also influence currents and mixing with North Sea waters — will push the Baltic toward cod- or sprat-dominated systems. But we can be sure that the winner’s identity will be both an outcome and a driver of surrounding ecosystem changes.

Add to this climate-driven “weirding” one more element — the ongoing invasions via human vectors of non-native species, many of which are capable of deleterious interactions with native species, with a few causing profound ecological changes. The U.S. has been woefully ineffective in preventing these colonizations. But our failures do instruct; we should view these additions from afar as lessons, as the equivalent to the sudden appearance of new species in an ecosystem because of warming.

A poster species for the seriousness of these invasions is the freshwater zebra mussel in North America. In its native Eurasian range it exists in
Climate change may be linked directly to the facilitation of invasive species: a worrisome synergy.
balance with other aquatic creatures. But in New York's Hudson River these mussels went from zero to an estimated 550 billion individuals in only two years. Zebra mussels now reduce the river's phytoplankton by more than eighty percent, an ecological insult that echoes through its food chain, including reducing available food for newly hatched shad and striped bass.

Indeed, climate change may be linked directly to the facilitation of invasive species — a worrisome synergy. For example, it has been shown for sea squirts in Long Island Sound that warm winters provide an earlier start in spring for three non-native species of sea squirts as they settle and claim bottom territory. Warm summers also allow them to grow faster than native species. A maximum of only a three-degree Celsius change caused a 10-fold difference across 12 years in the ratios of native and non-native sea squirts. Sea squirt species changes may seem innocuous (although we don’t really know this), but if responses to warming like these can be extrapolated to other marine invertebrates, greater temperature alterations may strongly upset the “playing field” in the ecological contests between native and aliens species.

Although I focused on what I know best — the marine world — these principles apply equally to the terrestrial realm, with land-based examples being numerous and increasing as more studies are launched. The more we look, the more we find. Norwegian researcher Jöel Durant and his colleagues wrote, “All components of a food chain cannot be expected to shift their phenology at the same rate, and thus are unlikely to remain synchronous.” The implications of this simple statement are forbidding — the biotic scrambling to come will indeed be weird, or worse.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College, New York, works on the ecology and evolution of anadromous fishes, historical ecology, and urban waterways. Before joining Queens College, he worked for 20 years at the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research. Waldman's recent books include Heartbeats in the Muck: A Dramatic Look at the History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor and The Dance of the Flying Gurnards: America's Coastal Curiosities and Beachside Wonders.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | Del.icio.us | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon

COMMENTS


Mr. Waldman is out of touch with the reality that global temperatures are cooling. Global warming proponents no longer publish temperature differentials from year to year. Temperatures are now expressed only in relation to hand-picked "averages."

This obscures the year to year drops which have come as a surprise to those who actually believe in man made warming. Statements like this year is the Nth warmest in history relegate history to the 150 years that the IPCC has determined best fits their models.
Posted by Dahun on 19 Mar 2009


"Dahun" is wrong. Perhaps he/she wants to believe what he/she says for some reason, and the inconvenience that the statements are wrong has no meaning.

The differentials are still available.

The years start from 1880 because it was only then that the instrumented data could be construed to be worldwide.

Almost all prior data, except in Europe and parts of North America, are anecdotal or proxy measurements, not direct measurements.

Does "Dahun" want to compare measured temperatures to reconstructed temperatures? Other "climate creationists" have objected mightily to that.

As to the differentials, data from 1880 are available from NASA, monthly, seasonally, annually. This has not changed. Maybe "Dahun"'s sources are wrong.

Twenty-two out of the past twenty-five years are the warmest from 1880 to 2008. Of the top ten warmest years, only two are not from the past decade (1998, which essentially ties with 2005 and 2007 as the warmest year, and 1990). 2008 was warmer globally than any year prior to 1998. A plot of the past two decades' temperatures shows no trace of the supposed global cooling since 1998 "Dahun" and other deniers claim.
Posted by Gordon J Aubrecht II on 20 Mar 2009


Over time temperatures rise, temperatures fall and climate and habitats change. As it does (along with other factors), almost all existing species will become extinct and new ones will be created and flourish ('regime shifts'). How many species existing 1 billion years ago are present today?

Are the species the author warns are at risk more worthy of existing than what may take their place? The 'biotic scrambling' the author fears has always happened throughout life on this planet — and it has somehow managed to produce what he believes is the present synchronous balance that is worthwhile saving.
Posted by kasphar on 21 Mar 2009


One land based effect that I worry about is pollination by bees, wasps and other flying insects.

If the mutually beneficial relationships between insects and plants are disrupted, might we be threatening our own food supply? Thanks for a thought provoking article.
Posted by Louis Bertrand on 22 Mar 2009


The only flaw in this theory is that the earth temperature has been dropping for the past ten years and is now back to where it was in the 1970's. So there must be some other explanation for these changes.
Posted by Fred on 23 Mar 2009


Fred, Although I am rather skeptical of AGW claims (and especially the one above's conclusions), I don't think that the average temps for the past ten have been dropping down as far as the 1970's.

The past ten years average temperature has been higher than any previous decade, but the warming appears to be leveling off in line with the high temperatures in 1998.
Posted by kasphar on 24 Mar 2009


Fred, Dahun, I think John gave you the data: boreal species are moving northwards, species from the south move northwards; and still you keep screaming: "It's a lie! It's a lie! Global warming is a hoax!" Try telling that to a fish.

Kasphar, Yes, the extinctions are normal, albeit not very regular phenomenon, especially extinctions of a size we're witnessing now. You have, however, put yourself in a position of a God, who doesn't care what becomes of this planet. But we're humans, and we're sharing the destiny of our biosphere, and as a supposedly "intelligent" species which is now causing much disruption in the same biosphere, we have the responsibility and the power to prevent the changes that might lead to our own extinction.
Posted by Uranius on 24 Mar 2009


Uranius, Your statement above reads, 'We have the responsibility and the power to prevent the changes that might lead to our own extinction.'

Now, that sounds more like playing God to me. The earth has been warming up after the mini ice age and natural selection will take place while this happens. (If the earth was cooling the same things would be happening.)

We can do our part by stopping pollution and keeping the environment clean but controlling the global climate — well, good luck.
Posted by kasphar on 24 Mar 2009


Kasphar, If one species multiplies at a rate of 1 billion per decade, at the same time increasing resource & energy expenditure per capita in a finite resource world, then it's easy to conclude the system would collapse.

It is "playing the God," especially given the fact that many our scientists like to play that game. We have the influence on a global ecosystem, if for nothing else, then for altering almost 70 percent of a planet landmass - you will agree this may have an impact. And it is not only land we're changing, we also change the oceans, and the air. Apes cannot make significant changes, nor can sparrows - they don't have the numbers & technology - but we can. If we know that our overconsumption is permanently wasting our mineral and energy resources, at the same time putting significant quantities of waste product into environment, then we can do something about it.
Posted by Uranius on 25 Mar 2009


The above article only makes reference to global warming and climate change causing the 'biotic scrambling'. All the rest you suggest are irrelevant to the argument in question. You can't control the climate and extreme weather events (which is the core reason for the problem discussed above). We could change all things you have suggested but not climate and the sun's variations.

Here's a thought. When humans believed in gods and spirits they were more in tune with nature. When they stopped believing in gods, they believed they were the gods and believed they were above nature in order to create a technological heaven on earth.
Posted by kasphar on 25 Mar 2009


In Nova Scotia, Canada, evidence of climate change is stunning. In the 1800s, between the mainland of the Province, and Tancook Islands (approximately one kilometre offshore), the Atlantic Ocean once remained frozen throughout the winter, enabling oxen to haul large wagons of hay from Chester on the mainland to the Islands across two feet or more of frozen Ocean. As well, for recreation Tancook Island residents skated to Chester, N.S. on the mainland, during the cold winter climates. For the last one hundred years this coastal ocean environment remains totally free of ice.

In year 2009, in Northwest, outside Lunenburg, N.S., Canada, Canada Geese now find the winter climate so warm that they stay all winter, feeding in grain fields and traveling to the nearby Ocean during brief colder periods. What was once a much-anticipated Spring and Autumn ecstasy, to see Canada Geese flying overhead from northern Canada to the southern United States and Mexico in the Fall, and head back North in Springtime, has become a less common spectacle.

In Oakville, Ontario, Canada Geese have remained there for the past several years, instead of their usual migration to a more Southern, warmer climate.

Clearly, an increasing exponential growth in the human population is having a dramatic effect on wild species, and the human race. One hundred years ago, we were two billion people on a finite earth. Now we are 6.7 billion people and continuing to reproduce exponentially, destroying natural habitats and limited resources at a proportionate exponential rate.
The human population is causing serious terminal damage to the environment.
Posted by Ross crouse on 23 Apr 2009


"Dahun" is wrong. Perhaps he/she wants to believe what he/she says for some reason, and the inconvenience that the statements are wrong has no meaning.

The differentials are still available.

The years start from 1880 because it was only then that the instrumented data could be construed to be worldwide.

Almost all prior data, except in Europe and parts of North America, are anecdotal or proxy measurements, not direct measurements.

Does "Dahun" want to compare measured temperatures to reconstructed temperatures? Other "climate creationists" have objected mightily to that.

As to the differentials, data from 1880 are available from NASA, monthly, seasonally, annually. This has not changed. Maybe "Dahun"'s sources are wrong.

Twenty-two out of the past twenty-five years are the warmest from 1880 to 2008. Of the top ten warmest years, only two are not from the past decade (1998, which essentially ties with 2005 and 2007 as the warmest year, and 1990). 2008 was warmer globally than any year prior to 1998. A plot of the past two decades' temperatures shows no trace of the supposed global cooling since 1998 "Dahun" and other deniers claim.
Posted by cna training on 12 Sep 2010



 

RELATED ARTICLES


UN Panel Looks to Renewables As the Key to Stabilizing Climate
In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
READ MORE

New Satellite Boosts Research On Global Rainfall and Climate
Although it may seem simple, measuring rainfall worldwide has proven to be a difficult job for scientists. But a recently launched satellite is set to change that, providing data that could help in understanding whether global rainfall really is increasing as the planet warms.
READ MORE

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters As Threat of Acidification Grows
A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

UN Climate Report Is Cautious On Making Specific Predictions
The draft of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world faces serious risks from warming and that the poor are especially vulnerable. But it avoids the kinds of specific forecasts that have sparked controversy in the past.
READ MORE

Should Universities Divest From Fossil Fuel Companies?
Student and activist groups have been urging universities to take a stand against climate change by divesting from companies that produce oil, natural gas, or coal. In a Yale Environment 360 debate, activist Bob Massie makes the case for divestment as a necessary tool in pushing for action on climate, while economist Robert Stavins argues it would be merely symbolic and have little effect.
READ MORE


SEARCH


Donate to Yale Environment 360


ABOUT

Menu

SUPPORT E360

Menu

TOPICS

Menu

DEPARTMENTS

Menu

HOME PAGE

Menu