Guest essay by Daniel Bourke
The concept of climate change has become a controversial one. By that it is not meant to be said that the happening of climate change is controversial in and of itself, but that it has become an issue as divisive in its contents as any other such engagement. Our primary objective here is simply to highlight some recent researches which specifically detail how the world’s flora and fauna cope advantageously in spite of, and indeed because of changing environmental conditions. We hope to show here that, far from being bystanders in the face of the forces of nature, these organisms are natural forces in themselves and will certainly move where possible when confronted by change both great and small.
The State of Climate Science
A degree of clarification needs to be attempted before the piece is elaborated. And that is regarding the current state of climate science. This piece has hopefully been written in a way which will allow its information to be valuable to the reader whether or not our current long-term climate models are correct, and indeed allowing for that possibility in its formation. The information then can be considered in a context which also stands alone from the larger climate change debate, and hopefully as valuable data-points in their own right.
The public is generally presented with simplistic models and graphs which, for the most part, paint an entirely one-sided view of the science which underlies climate change. This can be seen as a criticism or as a statement of fact. And although we do not have room enough to detail much in this regard, we will make clear, through some select sources, that not only isn’t the “science settled”, but that the science is not even close to being fully understood. Our data and any conclusions must therefore be understood within this context.
Radical revisions have been and are ideally commonplace within an open scientific community, wholesale reassessment of previous models in the face of new data is a now daily occurrence. Of course change is often equally resisted, this is the case in respect to many aspects of human life, but within a scientific framework, this idea was probably best summed up by Max Planck when he stated, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1
We have then two extremes regarding the assimilation of data within the sciences. Those sciences are practiced by humans and are ultimately interpreted by those humans. Subject to the human condition. Although the scientific world often presents itself as somehow immune to such otherwise patently inevitable occurrences, touting the idea of science as being inherently “self-correcting” in its utilization, this is an extremely naïve and misleading notion which breaks down in the face of even cursory examination of the history of data falsification in the sciences toward particular ends.2
Unsettling the Science
This groundwork laid, we will now look at some examples of such reassessments specifically concerning our focus here, the climate sciences. For example, a new study by a University of Michigan paleoclimatologist and two colleagues suggests that, the deep ocean was not an important source of carbon during glacial times, as had previously been assumed. The finding will force researchers to reassess their ideas about the fundamental mechanisms that regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide over long time scales.” “We’re going back to the drawing board. It’s certainly fair to say that we need to have some other working hypotheses at this point,” said U-M paleoclimatologist David Lund, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience. A prime example of how new data can overturn so much data which came before. It is this reality which must be born in mind on consideration of any currently held maxims or dogmas in climate science.3
In a report entitled “The earth’s magnetic field impacts climate:”, Peter Riisager, of the Geological Survey of Denmark concludes that “…the climate is an incredibly complex system, and it is unlikely we have a full overview over which factors play a part and how important each is in a given circumstance,”.4 Indeed the complexity of this system is perhaps the greatest cause for concern when weighed against conclusions which are presented as definitive in this field. Those definitive conclusions, some of which are mentioned later on, must be approached anew with such insights as Peter Riisager’s here. Insights which bring assumptions which have come before legitimately into question.
Further recent research highlights the undulating nature of models which are traditionally considered as firmly entrenched. “The standard view of the greenhouse state is that you draw carbon dioxide from the deep Earth interior by a combination of more activity along the mid-ocean ridges — where tectonic plates spread — and massive breakouts of lava called ‘large igneous provinces, “Though both of these would produce more carbon dioxide, it is not clear if these processes alone could sustain the atmospheric carbon dioxide that we find in the fossil record during past greenhouses.”~ Cin-Ty Lee.5
Consider too the insights of Shaima Naisiri, A Texas A&M University geoscientist who comments on what she considers a deeply understudied piece of the climate puzzle. “Only in the past few years have we focused on the physical properties of mid-level clouds. This means that previous climate models are incomplete,”6
It should be made clear, the goal here is not to question or denounce the veracity of all knowledge like the epistemologists and ontologists would attempt, far from it. It is quite plainly the case for instance, that the “physical properties of mid-level clouds” are deeply understudied, as stated above. This is a piece of information which serves to bolster the general theme this piece is exploring. With just a short list of examples it is fair to say that our initial statement on the state of climate science has been borne out. Climate change takes many forms of course. Though the aspect of it which is most widely discussed, at least popularly, is the “global warming” one. The idea of a heating Earth predicated upon an increase in greenhouse gases which trap sunlight, an admittedly simplistic summation but sufficient in this instance. Of course, it is less often detailed how, although there will be those species whom may have trouble adapting to a warming environment, there are likely to be at least as many to whom a warming environment, or an environment in general or ongoing flux would prove a boon rather than a bane. It is this idea which we will attempt to support below.
With this foundation in place, it is hoped that the reader may approach the remainder of this work with something of an open mind. Consider that when man is faced with the elements, he alters his behaviours accordingly. His agriculture is dependent upon keen observation of the natural cycles and this also holds true where applicable, within the broader animal and plant kingdoms. Man even constructs his housing in a manner often directly related to immediate environmental conditions7.This is equally the case among other creatures. We of course understand that man cannot predict with absolute certainty taking into account his current understanding of the physics which underpin climate models. However, just as man has altered his behaviours before and during times of great change, so too do those other organisms which equally constitute our biosphere.
“An international team led by a CNRS researcher from the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology has shown that little auks the most common seabirds in the Arctic, are adapting their fishing behaviour to warming surface waters in the Greenland Sea”8. And how exactly are these little auks changing their behaviour in response to changing environmental conditions? The report goes on to explain. “Surprisingly, the birds have managed to make up for the warming of surface waters in the Greenland Sea by altering their diet and extending the duration of their foraging trips at sea. They travel further and for longer in order to feed in areas where foraging is more successful. (Photo Credit: David Gremillet/CNRS)
An international research team published the results of a study relevant to our enquiry in the renowned Science journal. The new findings are the result of an international research team from the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the German Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research and conclude in this manner. “Wandering albatrosses have altered their foraging due to changes in wind fields in the southern hemisphere during the last decades. Since winds have increased in intensity and moved to the south, the flight speed of albatrosses increased and they spend less time foraging. As a consequence, breeding success has improved and birds have gained 1 kilogram”9This elegant seabird, the largest in the world, has, over the course of the previous two decades, according to this longitudinal study been able to keep up with changing wind conditions by accounting for their fluctuations in their general and specific behaviour.
Justin Touchon, post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, discovered that climate change in Panama may be altering frogs’ course of evolution. “Pantless treefrogs can switch between laying eggs in water or on leaves, so they may weather the changes we are seeing in rainfall better than other species that have lost the ability to lay eggs in water. “Being flexible in where they put their eggs gives them more options and allows them to make decisions in a given habitat that will increase the survival of their offspring.”10
Continuing with our examples, we have some very recent research which suggests that rat snakes may benefit from warming nights by being able to stay active for longer periods of time.“Climate change would actually make the environment thermally better for them,” said study leader Patrick Weatherhead of the University of Illinois in a press release. “Texas is already too hot for much of the day so it may cause them to shift to even more nocturnal foraging there and stay active at night for more of the season.”1
Black rat snake, Pantherophis obsoletus (Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons)
Beyond these examples we have a slew of others from a live Science Report which is referenced 2 paragraphs below. For the purposes of this piece we are cherry picking examples of beneficial behavioural changes in response to environmental stresses; other kinds of changes may be followed up by any reader who is interested
Firstly, we find that, “Loggerhead sea turtles are laying their eggs about 10 days earlier than they did 15 years ago.” Shifting to a more positive gear we hear that “Some plants are thriving in areas where their growth was limited before, thanks to temperature changes that provide more water, heat and sunlight.” While it is further reported that “Marmots end their hibernations about three weeks earlier now compared to 30 years ago.”
All these points are presented as supportive of ongoing climate change, hence their inclusion here. Some inescapably are, others are more open to interpretation. Regarding those which are supportive, our piece is certainly bolstered further, in this case more so than the others reported here, we are dealing almost exclusively with potentially unrealistic extrapolation. In other words these are facts which may or may not be explained by numerous factors beyond how they are presented in the piece picked up by Live-Science entitled “How Global Warming is changing the Wild Kingdom”12
They are, incidentally, linked directly to global warming in the piece, though some dissenting voices are aired too. Further details of which may be read in the piece as referenced below. Once more we are simply pointing out the uncertain nature of the conclusions made from data within a branch of science which, as has been previously demonstrated is quite young and subject to radical revision in the details of its models, importantly including those which authoritatively predict such things as “No Stopping it Now: Seas to Rise 4 Inches or More this Century”13
Again, we are highlighting the broadly overlooked fact that all climate change is not necessarily detrimental climate change in its effects on the lifestyle, behaviours and physiology of organisms. All warming is most certainly not bad warming. All cooling, is most certainly not bad cooling. There will always be those creatures whose fortunes will change for better just as there are those for whom the opposite will be true. This is the nature of existence of Earth, the nature of the organism’s relationship to the greater natural cycles. Even death at the hands of such change is not some great perturbation, no perversion of so called natural law, but simply a matter of fact.
Morphological and other Adaptions
Behaviour is one thing, and that the requisite behaviour often emerges complementarily with novel morphological features is fascinating in and of itself, but what of these morphological and physiological changes? What does recent research have to say on how plants and animals are changing not just behaviourally, but physically in response to a changing climate?
Consider that 3 species of trees in the Amazon have apparently been found to have been around for at least the past 8 million years, “The evidence comes from the fact that some Amazonian tree species have already survived for more than eight million years – showing they’re pretty resilient, and have already lived through the sort of temperatures forecast for 2100.” While some caveats are listed for anyone who wishes them, they are overly-speculative and do not take away from the general point in this authors view. These trees have seemingly adapted to many changes in climate over the last 8 million years and will likely continue that trend into the foreseeable future.14
Keeping with the Amazon for a moment, Professor Peter Cox of the University of Exeter in England who had previously projected that the Amazon rainforest may die out by around 2050 due to the effects of global warming, has now co-authored another study which concludes something altogether different based on new information. Regarding the finding that “The Amazon rainforest is less vulnerable to die off because of global warming than widely believed because the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide also acts as an airborne fertilizer”, Professor Cox stated that, “I am no longer so worried about a catastrophic die-back due to CO2-induced climate change, CO2 fertilization will beat the negative effect of climate change so that forests will continue to accumulate carbon throughout the 21st century”15
Also reported recently were the results of a study which concluded that “When the heat is on, lizards become smarter – potentially giving them a competitive edge as the world warms.” These results were attained in the following manner. “Joshua Amiel and colleagues at the University of Sydney, Australia, wanted to see if bigger lizards also make better learners, so they incubated nine eggs in cold conditions – 8.5 to 23.5 °C – and 12 in warm conditions – 14.5 to 29.5 °C.
Once hatched, the lizards were put in plastic containers equipped with two hideouts, one blocked off with Plexiglas and the other fully accessible. The researchers, playing predators, scared the lizards by touching their tails with a paintbrush and recorded where the lizards went. After 16 trials, five of the nine cold-incubated lizards still headed for the inaccessible hideout. Just one of the 12 warm-incubated lizards made the same mistake.”16
Although we are dealing with computer models and falsifiable dating methods, and hence these results which contradicted Cox’s former results are by no means full-proof, is this in itself not the point? Crucially, while everything in this piece may or may not in its own right be debatable to some degree, that is itself the point I am most interested in making in relation to climate change as both a popular and scientific concept.
We are not trying to assert that all creatures at all times will so successfully alter their habits as those described here; or that these creatures on which we do write will continue to be successful in their endeavours, this would be unrealistic. Our goal is to bring a semblance of balance to an issue which is often framed in an overly simplistic and needlessly polarizing manner. The decline of general biodiversity and the umbrella notion of climate change are more and more presented as synonymous, but this is quite plainly not always the case. We have hopefully demonstrated here that the aforementioned synonymy is premature in its assumption
There has been no conscious attempt to convey any sort of moral or political message. Nor commentary on what should or shouldn’t be done regarding the kinds of contentions issues which inevitably arise when writing on biodiversity. This has not been the aim. The idea has been to concisely support the notion that climate change is not inherently disastrous. Negative connotations abound in use of the term, and while there certainly have been disasters in the most practical sense of the word, there are many examples in which the planets species are similarly gaining related advantages over their cohabitants.
Extinction and death are as natural as proliferation and birth. They may be altered to relative extremes at his hand, but man is as much nature as the songbird or the lilac. That man may choose to accommodate or hinder these processes toward ends either philanthropic or perverse is indicative of his unique position as an organism on this Earth and his own capacity to act as one of nature’s more disruptive forces.
While ecological niches are lost in the wake of change, others are gained; life will almost certainly find a way, barring an extinction level event of some kind. This is not a statement meant to be interpreted as a “responsibility cop-out”; this piece has been written divorced from any sort of like insinuations. That has not been my concern. Man after all will do what man will do.
2. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2012/10/02/misconduct-and-not-error-is-the-source-of-most-retracted-papers/, Scientific American, October 2nd, 2012
3. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111003180440.htm, Science Daily, October 4th 2011
4. http://phys.org/news151003157.html, Physorg, January 12, 2009
6. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101123174338.htm, January 1st, 2011
8. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120515093949.html, May 15, 2012
10. http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/climate-change-may-alter-amphibian-evolution, Smithsonian, October 24th, 2012
12. http://www.livescience.com/3864-global-warming-changing-wild-kingdom.html, Live Science, Jun 21st, 2005
13. http://www.livescience.com/6911-stopping-seas-rise-4-inches-century.html, march 17th, 2005
15. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=amazon-forest-more-resilient-to-climate, Scientific American, February 6, 2013