Scientists can see clearly what climate change is taking from NH and the world
"What all these stories have in common is that many scientists didn’t set out to document the impacts of climate change, but their decades of data have done that." (NASA Earth Observatory | Joshua Stevens; NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service)
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”
This quote from Aldo Leopold, one of the 20th century’s most influential wildlife scientists and conservationists, came to mind as I was reading a recent story in the New York Times. The piece is entitled “The Scientists Watching Their Life’s Work Disappear.”
For scientists who study the world around us, trying to understand how it works and how the pieces fit together, it can take a lifetime to unravel the complexities of the objects of their studies, whether plants, animals, or ecological communities. I have always been in awe of the dedication and focus of the biologists and ecologists who spend decades devoted to their scientific research. Having participated in some of this work, most recently as a citizen scientist volunteer under the guidance of a researcher at the Hubbard Brook Research Forest, I can attest that the work is often tedious, repetitive, and slow to reveal its conclusions.
The scientists profiled briefly in the Times article have spent their careers studying and documenting the impacts of human activity and global warming on polar bears, salmon, glaciers, tropical birds, penguins, coral reefs, and trees in the desert.
Kristin Laidre, who studies narwhals and polar bears, has documented rising ocean temperatures (rising faster than at any time in geological records) and how that has reduced Arctic sea ice, upon which the bears and narwhals are highly dependent.
Andres Rivera documents the rapid loss of glaciers. Since he started his studies, the rate at which glaciers have been receding rose from 7 inches a year to almost 3 feet a year. The increasing loss of glaciers can have devastating consequences to human communities that live downstream. The sudden massive floods that happened below the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, this summer are one example.
In Hawaii, Hanna Mounce has documented how increasing temperatures have resulted in the spread of mosquitoes into the cooler, higher elevations of the mountains. There, the mosquitoes transmit avian malaria to rare forest birds, slowly decimating the populations.
Penguin researcher Dee Boersma has studied a colony of Megallanic penguins for 40 years. Hotter weather and increasing rainfall (warm air holds more moisture than cold air) results in penguin chicks dying from heat stroke and exposure to too much rain. The population is now half what it was 40 years ago.
The destruction of coral reefs is being studied around the world. No scientist in the field seems optimistic about the future of these critically important ecosystems. David Obura, a scientist who works in the Indian Ocean, observes that the oceans have lost almost a quarter of their coral.
Most of us don’t think there are trees in the desert, but Patrick Gonzalez studies the trees that live in the Sahel region of Africa. He documents that they are dying, reducing people’s well-being both materially and emotionally.
Here in New Hampshire, it’s easy to find scientists who can document similar losses. My friend Eric Orff, a retired wildlife biologist, spends much of his time explaining how rising winter temperatures have facilitated the proliferation of winter ticks that can bleed a moose calf to death. Our population of moose has plummeted as a result.
Fisheries biologists can document how our state fish, the Eastern brook trout, has been chased from many of our streams by human impacts, with climate change now being the long-term existential threat. These beautiful fish simply cannot survive in warming waters.
What all these stories have in common is that many scientists didn’t set out to document the impacts of climate change, but their decades of data have done that. They are watching the subjects of their life’s work slowly disappear. As Leopold said, they are “living in a world of wounds.”
When I was being trained in environmental science many decades ago, I envisioned a career working to understand environmental problems and helping devise solutions. In the 20th century, we made a lot of progress on this, from cleaning our rivers and air, protecting our drinking water, conserving critical wildlife habitat, bringing some species back from the brink of extinction to getting dangerous chemicals out of our food.
I worry every day that we humans have now created a “super”problem that will defy solutions in time to avoid catastrophic changes to our and other life on earth. At times it makes me angry.
If we are to leave our children and grandchildren a world as rich, diverse, beautiful, abundant, and fascinating as the one we adults were born into, we must put aside the tribal politics that prevent people from learning and understanding the challenge of climate change, and work together to solve this problem.
The debates now should be on what the best solutions are, and how we can decarbonize and employ sustainable energy and agriculture while minimizing the unintended consequences of our actions.
As Keith Parker, a salmon scientist, said in the Times: “All the terrible things I’ve seen, all the detrimental changes to the environment, all the impacts of climate change – I use it to fuel my motivation to be a better scientist, to be a better human being, to be a better steward of the land. And honestly, part of it is anger. That’s fuel, OK? I get mad, and I turn that anger into fuel that motivates me.”
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