Year 3, Month 12, Day 29: The Sky Is A Hazy Shade Of Something Or Other

The Seattle Times speculates on the likely end of winter, with a “scientists are surprised” subhead.

One of the biggest surprises in the technical report on biodiversity and ecosystems is how much winter has already changed, said Bruce Stein, director of climate-change adaptation with the National Wildlife Federation, in a conference call this week.

“The bottom line is that these impacts aren’t just going to happen in 50 to 100 years; many of them are already here, and are only going to get worse over time,” Stein said. “There has already been more effect on winter than we thought, and that affects what happens in summer.”

In the Northwest, forests already show the effect of warmer winters in beetle-killed trees. The pests thrive without the killing cold. That, in turn, means summertime wildfires stoked with dead conifers.

In addition to changes in winter, the report noted many other effects of even small shifts in temperature. Among them, increased risk of extinction among animals that can’t move, or adapt quickly enough to outrun warming temperatures.

“We were surprised at the rate of movement of species in response to these changes in temperature,” Stein said. Shifts in species’ ranges is occurring about two to three times faster than previous estimates, with plants and animals shifting north in their home ranges about 10 miles a decade, and marine species moving even faster, as much as 27 to 30 miles north, seeking colder water.

There are exceptions of course, and winners, as well as losers. As the climate warms, some species are gaining whole new ground to colonize, while other animals are dying out.

Locally in the Northwest, barnacle and mussel beds already are declining in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, because of warming water in the intertidal zone, according to the report.

The timing of seasonal events in nature is also shifting, with animals migrating and nesting earlier caused by shorter, milder winters, including northern flickers in the Northwest.

The bottom line is change. Because of the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, no matter what is done now to affect human-caused global warming from the burning of fossil fuel, long term, the climate of the past will not be seen again.

“What we are seeing, ” Stein said, “is a new normal.”

Yesterday’s letter was actually triggered by this piece, but then I got disoriented, because I had two separate “oh-shit-winter-is-gone-forever” articles up in two different browser windows. Anyway. Sent December 23:

A phrase like “that’s surprising,” can mean different things depending on who’s saying it and where it’s being said — but when it’s scientists discussing environmental factors reinforcing one another and unpredictably worsening the effects of climate change, it’s almost certainly bad news. Predictability is the essence of science — but it’s also essential for planning and policy; when we cannot prepare for the future, we’re at its mercy.

One certainty: there’ll be more unpleasant surprises for climatologists — and the rest of us. Whether it’s disrupted agriculture, a collapsing oceanic food chain, or catastrophic weather events, the accelerating climate crisis isn’t waiting for us to catch up. If the “new normal” described by the National Wildlife Federation’s Bruce Stein is one where science, policy and preparation are constantly blindsided by events, it’s not just winter sports that are going to disappear, but the entire infrastructure of our civilization.

Warren Senders

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