Open Spaces : warming

Alaska: Across the Wildest State, Climate Change Threatens Many Species and Habitats

A momma polar bear stands with baby bears flanking her on either side

An Alaska polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Melting sea ice has made the polar bear a symbol of climate change impact. Photo: Susanne Miller, USFWS. Download.

Mutlimedia iconAudio: Interview with Alaska Native Elder Christina Westlake

Video: Polar Bear Research on the Chukchi Sea

With an area of more than 375 million acres extending 2,000 miles from east to west and 1,100 miles from north to south, Alaska dwarfs other states. The northernmost state is also unmatched in its range of climates and habitats — and nearly all are feeling impacts from climate change. 

During the last half-century, Alaska has seen some of the most rapid warming on earth, with temperatures rising 1 to almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit across its climate regions and ecosystems. By the year 2100, the average annual temperature of Alaska’s North Slope is projected to rise another 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

 “One big difference between Alaska and the Lower 48 is that here we’re dealing with impacts that have already occurred, not just forecasts of change,” says John Morton, Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “And because Alaska hasn’t undergone widespread landscape change from non-climate stressors such as agriculture and development, the impacts of climate change aren’t masked as they are elsewhere.”

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Pennsylvania: Climate Change Brings Uncertain Future for Bog Turtle

A bog turtle sits in what looks like hay and grass
The impacts of climate change could amplify other threats to the bog turtle, such as habitat loss and fragmentation. Photo: Gary Peeples, USFWS. Download.

In October 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Pennsylvania, in part, to protect the federally threatened bog turtle. Climate change, however, could amplify existing threats to the turtle’s fragile habitat. 

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources all have identified habitat loss and fragmentation -- mostly due to development -- as the main threat facing bog turtles.

When the Refuge boundary was established, Cherry Valley was experiencing a surge in residential development that threatened the turtle’s habitat -- wet meadows and other shallow, sunny wetlands. In a November 2010 article in Refuge Update detailing establishment of the refuge, Refuge Manager Michael Horne said the first parcel acquired for Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge’s provided “promising wetlands in terms of bog turtle management.”

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New York: Invasive Insect Infestations Spread Further North, Threatening Hemlock Forests

A bug in a wooly nest with larvae

A hemlock woolly adelgid infestation can destroy a hemlock tree in just a few years. The insect gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. Photo: Michael Montgomery, USDA Forest Service.

In New York, climate change may make it easier for an invasive species to continue its spread to hemlock forests further to the north.

The threat comes from the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that feeds on hemlock trees. The species gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. The adelgid uses its long mouth to extract nutrients from hemlock needles. This disrupts the flow of nutrients in the tree. Needles dry out, turn color, and drop off. Larger limbs start dying off within a couple of years. Trees become badly damaged and in many cases die after several years.

Hemlock forests provide unique habitat for wildlife. Their shade helps keep soil and water temperatures cool and provide microclimates in which many plants and animals thrive.

The hemlock woolly adelgid was first discovered in the United States in Virginia in the 1950s. It is native to Asia and was likely introduced to the U.S. by accident.  It has thrived along the east coast and has damaged hemlock forests from Maine to Georgia.

In New York State, the hemlock woolly adelgid was discovered in the 1980s. Infestations are now found in 25 counties. The infestations are clustered in two regions: the Hudson Valley, which includes most of the lower portion of the state, and the Finger Lakes. There is great concern over the possibility of the insects eventually spreading to the forests of upstate New York, including Adirondack Park.

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Arkansas: Warming Trends Changing the Hunt for Waterfowl

Birds in flight at Bald Knob

Pintail and wigeon ducks on the move at Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Arkansas. Photo credit: Jim Daniel.

A 2005 newspaper article gave Dr. James Bednarz the idea to look for a possible link between climate change and duck migration.

In the article, someone suggested climate change was already reducing duck hunting opportunities in Arkansas, a state known for its premier waterfowl hunting.

“I thought it was pretty farfetched,” Bednarz recalled recently.

But the hypothesis presented an interesting research project. After diving into 50 years worth of duck data, Bednarz, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, says he’s now convinced climate change -- including warmer temperatures, more ice-free days and changes in precipitation -- is causing fewer ducks to migrate south for the winter.

“The analysis definitely demonstrates that change is happening right now,” Bednarz said. “If [climate change] continues, waterfowl hunting in places where we’ve traditionally done it will seriously diminish. I think it will be a big cost to our heritage and our wildlife.”

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North Dakota: Climate and Disease Take Toll on American White Pelicans

A baby white pelican with a leg band
A banded white pelican chick at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge faces many threats — including storms, disease and predators — before it is mature enough to fledge. Pelicans’ earlier initiation of nesting is putting the chicks at greater risk. Photo: USFWS. Download.

Each April and May, in a rite of spring, American white pelicans begin arriving in their Northern Plains breeding grounds from the Gulf of Mexico.  But for the last several decades, something has put the large birds ahead of schedule.  That something, researchers believe, is warming tied to climate change — the same change that’s recently brought egrets, ibis and herons to nest on the refuge, well north of their long-time nesting areas.

The early birds are paying for their two-week head start with more chick deaths from severe spring storms.  For the pelicans, this setback comes on top of other major stressors, most notably West Nile Virus. If — and how — the pelicans will adapt is unclear.

One place scientists and wildlife managers are monitoring is Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. The Chase Lake colony is one of the world’s four largest colonies of American white pelicans. 

As many as 35,000 white pelicans nest on Chase Lake’s remote wilderness islands. That’s up from 50 in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt established the refuge to protect the species from being hunted to extinction. Despite the colony’s rebound, the great-winged birds are still considered vulnerable because they have so few breeding areas.

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New Hampshire: Shorter Winters Mean More Ticks, Pose Big Threat to Moose

A moose with a clearly visible rib cage rests in murky water

Tick infestations can drain the blood supply of moose and can lead to malnutrition and death. In a year with average weather conditions, a moose will probably carry 30,000 ticks by late fall. In years with a late first snow fall, a moose could carry 160,000 ticks. Photo: Patrick Lafreniere. Download.

The average moose in New Hampshire stands about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Yet a creature smaller than the eraser on a pencil is a big threat to these massive animals, popular with both wildlife watchers and hunters.

The creatures posing the threat are winter ticks – Dermacentor albipictus. A New Hampshire Fish and Game Department study that began in 2001 collared and tracked moose and found winter ticks accounted for 41 percent of all moose deaths in the state over a five-year period. That was nearly the same percentage of collared moose killed by hunting and moose-vehicle collisions combined. Virtually all the calf deaths during the study were due to winter ticks.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Department researchers will spend the next several years studying the best way to accurately determine the numbers of ticks on moose and how that relates to mortality rates, as well as the changing climate.

According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “rising temperatures over the past few decades have caused snow to become wetter and decreased the average number of snow-covered days across the state.” In looking toward the future, the report says climate change could see New Hampshire’s snow season shrink by almost 50 percent by mid-century.

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Hawaii: Developing Options for Coral Reef Management in a Changing Climate

A very colorful photo of coral reef and fish

A tropical Pacific coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific abounds with fish. Ocean warming and acidification, tied to climate change, are taking a toll on coral reefs. Photo: Jim Maragos, USFWS. Download.

Photo iconPhotos: Coral reef photos by USFWS on Flickr

Tropical coral reefs are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems, harboring thousands of species in a complex community built by living corals. But in the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands, as elsewhere, these ecosystems are declining because of human impacts, including climate change.

“Coral reefs are on the front line of climate change,” explains Jeff Burgett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and science manager for the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative (PICCC), a conservation research coalition based in Honolulu and part of a national network of 21 such cooperatives. “Scientists around the world are documenting severe impacts to reefs from warming seas, and the lowering pH of the oceans will hurt their ability to recover.”   

In the Pacific, where the Service manages more than one million acres of coral reef habitat in 11 refuges, including the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Service scientists are seeking ways to reduce coral vulnerability. 

High water temperatures stress corals, causing them to expel the algae they normally shelter and nourish. These algae do more than give coral their vivid colors; they also release glucose needed for healthy coral function. Without the symbiotic algae, the white skeleton of the translucent coral animal is exposed. Intense coral bleaching often leads to coral death, as the coral starves without the algae; even corals that regain their algae are weakened, and often succumb to opportunistic diseases. 

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Tennessee: Joint Venture Strives to Determine the Effects of Climate Change on Brook Trout

An adult trout lying on a rock
Adult Brook Trout. These fish, known for their distinct coloring, face fragmented populations, habitat loss, invasive species, degraded streams, longer droughts, more intense wet periods, and temperature changes. Photo: USFWS. Download.

In his book, Shin Deep, Chris Hunt writes about why many fly fishermen pursue brook trout.  

“Its deep colors seem to provide a beacon of light in the near darkness of the evening, almost like a neon beer sign in a dank, dark, but wonderfully familiar tavern.” 

“You can’t help but stare at it.”

This hypnotic appeal draws fly fishermen like Robert Ramsay to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to chase brook trout holed up in cold mountain streams, like the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River that runs along the park’s Chimney Tops trail. “It’s like going back in time when you chase these brook trout in remote, higher elevation streams,” says Ramsay, who works for the Georgia Conservancy and has fly-fished on four continents. “I have a hard time thinking about the Smoky Mountains without brook trout in their streams.

Preventing this scenario is precisely why a growing number of partners are collaborating through the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture to determine how accelerating climate change and other challenges will impact Southern Appalachian brook trout populations in Tennessee and other states, and what biologists can do to protect the iconic fish.

In collaboration with many conservation organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed and released an ambitious strategy for responding to accelerating climate change and addressing its impact on critters like brook trout. The Service and joint venture are working on a climate change monitoring program, targeting 400 sites aimed at taking a closer look at how air and water temperatures impact brook trout.

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Oklahoma: Warmer Streams Could Add to Stresses on Rare Water Species

Four fat mucket mussels sit in the palm of a hand

A researcher displays juvenile freshwater fat mucket mussels that will be used as stand-ins for rarer species in studies on water temperature tolerance. Study data will help researchers assess how vulnerable rare Oklahoma aquatic species will be to potential warming tied to climate change. Photo: David Martinez, USFWS. Download.

Several rare and distinctively-named creatures depend for survival on the cool, mountain-fed Little and Kiamichi River Basins in southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas. At Little River National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas, the Ouachita rock pocketbook — a freshwater mussel — filters the water alongside two other endangered mussels, the scaleshell and winged mapleleaf. A small federally threatened fish called the leopard darter also hides in these upland streams.

Because streams in these river basins originate in the Ouachita Mountains, their water is relatively cool compared to streams in other ecosystems such as the Great Plains. High temperatures range from about 64 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 84 degrees in summer — a range that suits popular game fish such as smallmouth bass.

But threats abound. Water pollution, agriculture runoff and the construction of dams and reservoirs have already shrunken habitat for these rare aquatic species. A historic drought is compounding the problem. And now, biologists speculate the fish and mussels could face another potential stressor: rising stream temperatures resulting from climate change, if projections by an intergovernmental panel prove accurate. 

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Nevada: Climate Change May Impact Existing Refuge Water Concerns

A greenish blue lagoon surrounded by dry shrubbery

Kings Pool at Ash Meadow National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is a source of precious water in the desert. Photo: Cyndi Souza, USFWS.

Multimedia iconPodcast: Devils Hole pupfish. This iridescent blue inch-long fish makes its home in the 93 degree waters of Devils Hole, which is located within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near the California/Nevada border. The Devils Hole pupfish is found nowhere else in the world.

In southwestern Nevada, the nation’s need for renewable energy and a national wildlife refuge’s need to fulfill its mission is converging with climate change.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is an anomaly: an oasis of spring-fed wetlands in the Mojave Desert. Even more unusual are the plants and animals that have evolved there. Scientists have found 26 species that they believe exist only on or near the refuge.

When the Bureau of Land Management notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in early 2009 about a right-of-way application to install a solar array on BLM land 10 miles from the refuge, FWS and National Park Service staff considered how the project might affect the refuge and its resources. Most concerning was a proposed wet cooling system that would consume 4,500 acre-feet of water per year – water to be obtained via pumping from a deep-water wells. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to fill a one-acre area to the depth of one foot.)

Concerns about climate change effects on regional water supplies added to the Service’s sense of urgency.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012