Year 4, Month 4, Day 14: We’re Not Even Peninsulas

The Columbus Dispatch recycles a story from the NY Times on the intertwined fates of the fig and its little insect symbiote:

There are more than 700 species of wild fig in the tropics. Most can be pollinated only by a unique species of fig wasp. In turn, the wasps rely on fig plants as hosts for their eggs. Neither species can survive without the other.

Now a new study from equatorial Singapore, in the journal Biology Letters, finds that the wasps are vulnerable to climate change, meaning that the wild fig plants are, too. And that is ominous news for many other species, the researchers say, including birds, squirrels and other animals that feed on figs.

The scientists found that temperature increases of a few degrees could cut the adult life spans of pollinating fig wasps to just a few hours, from one or two days.

Are we Donne yet? April 1:

The microscopic wasps whose life-cycle is bound up with that of the fig tree offer a revealing analogy to our own species current predicament. Plant and insect are so tightly connected that neither’s existence is possible without the other; thinking of them as two independent species is misleading. Rather, they’re part of a single system of mutual support — a system now critically endangered a runaway greenhouse effect.

Similar intimate connections are found everywhere on our planet; symbiosis and interdependence are the rule, not the exception. Only one species — our own — claims exemption, and by reintroducing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of fossilized carbon into the atmosphere in a geological eyeblink, we have unwittingly rent asunder the tightly woven fabric which sustains us all. The fig-and-wasp partnership is just one of thousands of likely casualties of our hubristic separation from the great web of Earthly life. If we clever apes cannot recognize that no living thing is an island, we’ll find, when we finally ask for whom the bell tolls, that it’s tolling for us.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 26: Big Bee Gets The Honey

The Kitsap Sun (WA) is one of a number of papers running a Seattle Times story about a scientist who studies flowers:

SEATTLE (AP) — University of Washington researcher Elinore Theobald is studying the relationship between flowers and their pollinators on Washington’s highest mountain. And what she is finding so far — avalanche lilies at higher elevation set seed at one-third the rate of lilies elsewhere on the mountain — points to troubling questions.

Is it possible that the lilies are struggling because of a mismatch in their timing with their pollinators? And does that, in turn, point to trouble as the climate changes?

Theobald, a doctoral candidate, is working with field assistants Natasha Lozanoff and Margot Tsakonas to understand not just how a single species might be affected by even small changes in temperature, but how biological interactions between species respond to changing climates.

It is, if you will, a burning question: The average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1920, and is projected to increase an additional 3.6 to 7.2 degrees or more by the end of the century, according to the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.

What might that mean for plant and animal communities? One way to find out is to head to the mountain, Theobald figured, where the range in elevation can be a proxy for the shifts in climate that are forecast.

She posits that understanding how plant and pollinator interactions are playing out at those different elevations today might be a clue to what will occur in the future. And if you love avalanche lilies, it might not be good.

A flower is a lovesome thing. Sent August 21:

One of the most important things to be learned from studying ecological relationships is that every living thing on the planet is connected intricately with countless other living things. Humanity’s perch at the high end of the food chain depends on the millions of complex symbiotic relationships that collectively form Earth’s biosphere — like those between flowers and their pollinators. The University of Washington’s Elinore Theobald and her team of researchers have uncovered some very troubling evidence suggesting that these examples of nature’s genius in fostering teamwork may be at considerable risk due to the rapid acceleration of global climate change.

Just as individual achievements depend on the infrastructure created by a well-functioning society, so is our species’ collective progress built on an environmental “infrastructure” millions of years in the making. While the past century of industrial growth has brought our civilization to a level of remarkable accomplishment, it has also disrupted the climate in ways that seem likely to have disastrous consequences.

If our internet goes out for an hour, we feel sorely inconvenienced. But the planetary environment is a larger, older, and far more essential kind of “world-wide web” — one we cannot afford to lose.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 6, Day 14: Sixteen Tundras?

The New York Times notes that things are changing in the soon-to-be-not-so-very-much Frozen North:

Even as insect infestations and other factors accompanying warming have led to the “browning” of some stretches of boreal forest between temperate regions and the Arctic tundra, the tundra appears to be greening in a big way, various studies have shown. The newest such work, focused on scrubby windswept regions along Russia’s northwest Arctic coast, has found a particularly noteworthy shift is under way.

In this part of the Arctic, which could be a bellwether for changes to come elsewhere with greenhouse-driven warming, what might be called pop-up forests are forming. Low tundra shrubs, many of which are willow and alder species, have rapidly grown into small trees over the last 50 years, according to the study, led by scientists from the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford and the Arctic Center of the University of Lapland. The researchers foresee a substantial additional local warming influence from this change in landscapes, with the darker foliage absorbing sunlight that would otherwise be reflected back to space. But the fast-motion shift to forests will likely absorb carbon dioxide, as well.

A particularly interesting aspect of this work, to my eye, is how it reveals the potential for fast-motion responses of ecosystems to environmental change in the far north. In work I covered in 2007, botanists found that Arctic plant species were extremely responsive to fairly rapid climate shifts in the past.

Short-term thinking will whack us seriously. We get too soon old and too late smart. Sent June 4:

If you’ve got a short attention span, climate change seems to be offering all kinds of unexpected bonuses in the natural world. When Arctic bushes turn into trees far faster than scientists expected, that’s a pleasing turn of affairs at first glance — after all, trees are good. Everyone likes trees.

It’s only when your perception goes beyond a five-to-ten year span that things take an ominous turn. If climate change keeps accelerating, many plant and animal species will die out, unable to keep up with the rapid environmental transformations. While humans are famously adaptable and have shown themselves capable of survival in very extreme circumstances, we have never in recorded history experienced anything like the chaos climatologists are now nervously anticipating.

But this is only worrying if you think in decades, centuries, and millennia. Our politicians, who do their thinking in two-year election cycles, aren’t worried. They should be.

Warren Senders