The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Walking in the Woods

Note: the following is a re-post from an older version of this blog on a different site.

Science is a journey, not a destination. Ecology is a process, not an heirloom. If you don’t understand that, go for a walk on Mount Monadnock with a forester.

Monadnock is the mountain you can see on a clear day from pretty much anywhere in southwestern New Hampshire. It’s a big, solitary dome set in otherwise low, rolling country; if the land were a ship, the mountain would be its mast. The summit is open and rocky, the views are amazing, the trails are mostly fairly easy, and the trailheads are a few hours’ drive from pretty much anywhere. Not surprisingly, Monadnock is the third-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mt. Fuji, in Japan, and Mt Tai, in China.

The forester will probably have some connection to Professor Peter Palmiotto, Director of the Conservation Biology concentration at Antioch University New England. Maybe more to the point, he is also Director and founder of the Monadnock Ecological Research and Education Project, or MERE. If Mount Monadnock is a ship’s mast, MERE is the crow’s nest from which Professor Palmiotto and his students and colleagues are watching climate change.

Monadnock is a good place to watch the process of climate change across time, because of the way mountains alter climate change across space. We are used to climate change across space; Florida does not have the same climate as Maine, nor does it grow the same trees. If the climate of Florida moved to Virginia (as it may well do before the century is out, barring a miracle), the trees of Florida would follow. A complicating factor is the speed of human-caused warming; most tree species will not be able to keep up, so Florida forests will not simply shift north all together. Forest compositions will likely be reshuffled in the coming decades. But if you could keep track of all the trees in the country over a long enough period of time, you could watch the different kinds of trees surging south and then north again over the centuries like the wrack-lines of some giant, green tide.

If you want to keep an eye on the tide without running transects across hundreds of miles of North America, you can see the same shift in climate and trees by climbing a good-sized mountain. Mountains foreshorten forest zones because a few hundred feet of elevation changes climate the same way hundreds of miles of latitude does. Start at the base of Mount Monadnock on a fine day in late fall (after the leaves are off, so you can beat the crowds) and you stand among red oaks, white pines, and hemlocks—pretty typical of the woods in southern New Hampshire. Walk uphill, and you climb into forests of red spruce, a plant you might otherwise have to go to Canada or Maine to find. If you are walking with a forester, you might stop at one of the permanent study plots MERE has established on the mountain so you can see how the trees are doing this year. Growing fast or slow? Living or dying? Sprouting up with happy little red sprucelings, or the first, bold oaks? It’s not so much that red spruces like the cold, but that they dislike the cold less than the oaks do. Without the cold to reserve a space for them, the spruces can’t compete and they’ll give ground, retreating up the mountain–until they run out of mountain. This is important, because as go the spruces of Monadnock, so go the spruces of Maine and Canada, and so go all the animals and other plants that make up the boreal forest. So how are the spruces doing today? The forester doesn’t know. Science is a journey, not a destination.

I have climbed Mount Monadnock, though not with a forester, but today I stayed home and spoke with Professor Palmiotto by telephone. I’ve heard about the issue with the spruces before (I am an unrepentant plant geek), but what I don’t understand is why MERE is also looking for changes in subalpine plant communities on the summit. Generally, yes, a mountain can poke up into the alpine zone just like Monadnock pokes up into the spruce forest. Such a pokey mountain will sport a spot of tundra on its tip. Just as the spruces need the cold to keep the oaks at bay, so do the sedges and little heaths and cushion plants need the cold to keep at bay the spruce. Climate change means the alpine communities, too, will head up-slope until they finally run out of mountain.

But Monadnock is not actually that high. It is not tall enough to have tundra normally, and until 1800 or so, the whole mountain was forested. In that year there was a fire, and twenty years later there was another one. Between them, the two fires denuded the upper cone of the mountain, and without the trees most of the soil washed away. What is climate to the little subalpine plants, since it was fire, not climate, which created the opportunity for them?

Professor Palmiotto explains that these plants are vulnerable, not so much to changes in temperature, but to changes in moisture. With hotter summers will come drought, and that may be more of a problem than the warming itself. But the issue of whether the subalpine plants are actually in “their” climate touches a nerve. Apparently, some people are wondering why MERE’s alpine stewards are working so hard to protect plant communities that are in the wrong spot? Why try to restore a mountain that isn’t in its natural state anyway?

This is what I meant when I said ecology is a process, not an heirloom. The beautifully engraved chest of drawers your Great Aunt Jo gave you derives its value from how close it is to its original condition. It’s a piece of history. The glittery unicorn stickers you added when you were ten didn’t help. But Mount Monadnock is less like that chest of drawers and much more like Great Aunt Jo herself–with living beings, the point isn’t to preserve the original condition, the point is to protect and support the processes of their lives.

Plants don’t grow where they are supposed to, they grow where they can. Though taller mountain tops and polar sweeps have the right conditions for tundra plants more consistently than Monadnock does, there is no wrong place to be a plant. As Professor Palmiotto explains, the exposed summit of Monadnock is, at present, a bad place for trees. The little subalpine plants and lichens cope with the wind much better, therefore, it is the right place for them now. If and when trees get a chance to come in, the growing shrubs and saplings will provide shelter for each other and conditions will change. The point is not to prevent change, to turn back the clock to some more pristine era, the point is to support the integrity of the mountain’s own processes as it changes;

“My whole goal is to monitor change over time, educate people about change, and maybe, give the parts of the mountain that can re-vegetate the chance to do so. The trajectory of re-vegetation can probably be predicted, based on our knowledge of succession and species, but we haven’t predicted it yet. But if those plants just get stepped on…they’ll be no opportunity to study succession if everything just gets crushed.”

Getting stepped on is a serious possibility up on the summit. Remember that Monadnock is the second-most climbed mountain in the world. In 2009, the busiest 24 days of the year saw 16,111 visitors; that’s 32,222 feet! That’s a lot of foot-prints, especially for small plants and lichens not adapted to any human foot traffic at all. I ask what Monadnock would it look like now, if hardly anyone had hiked on it since the fires? Would the summit be closer to being reforested?  

“Oh yeah, a lot closer, a lot more forested,” Professor Palmiotto replies immediately. All his other answers have come slowly, careful as the growth of trees. This one tumbles out like water leaps off rock, tinged, suddenly, with something like nostalgia for a forest that does not yet exist and that Professor Palmiotto, being merely human, cannot now hope to live to see.

“The gravely patches and grassy areas would be shrubs and small trees. People would look at the summit and think it was forested; the trees would be tall enough to hide the summit cone, but just not on the bare rocks…like a lot of areas that are sparsely forested, with a lot of bare rock underneath. But the places that could hold seeds, that could support germination, have been stomped on. The trees haven’t had a chance. There are some patches of shrub-land already, you can see in aerial photos. But succession has been thwarted, halted, arrested by human trampling. So I will claim.”

The young forest, that would exist, but for a hundred and ninety years of trampling, blossoms in my mind. I have been to the top of Monadnock, as I’ve said, sheltered from the whipping sky behind big grey blocks of bare stone, crawled carefully along ridges of rock to harvest scraps of candy wrapper from pools of chilly water. I can place myself there with a thought. But now, young shrubs and trees sprout from the grassy hollows in my mind, spill out from sheltered crevices, and gain the height of my head and keep going. Spruce limbs meet and cross like reaching fingers over me and my rock. The stone beneath my fingers, also protected from feet, scales itself with lichen, little discs, green and brown like leather coins. If MERE has stopped the trampling with its education efforts, the clock of succession that was stopped by feet will move forward again. The new forest will come—in about a hundred and eighty years.

In a hundred eighty years, the climate will have changed—how much depends on human choices now, but the climate is still adjusting to the pollution already up there. Some further warming is inevitable. By then, the spruce could be gone from Monadnock, chased upslope by oaks. That the upper few hundred feet of mountain will not grow trees in the coming decades means the spruce will run out of mountain that much sooner.

But Professor Palmiotto does not say this. It’s true I did not ask, and he does not have much time today for chit-chat, but what comes across is not dread of the future but curiosity about it. MERE is too young a project to have much in the way of results yet. Let the rest of us issue warnings, there is certainly plenty to warn about; global climate change is real, and we are in trouble. But science never arrives; it never runs out of questions. Take a walk with a forester, and your companion will listen more often than speak, watch more often than perform. If we and the forests are all moving, at least someone is up in the crow’s nest watching where we go.

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The Ecology of Predator and Prey

This is another article I wrote in college about coping with various kinds of worry and grief, including that related to global warming and other environmental problems. I am not personally grief-stricken at the moment. Instead, I am tired and pressed for time, having just returned from a few days’ vacation. Hopefully this essay will prove food for thought.

Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.

Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.

One:

Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?

Two:

My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?

Three:

Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying–they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory, the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.

Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.

Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.

We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy facade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.