Open Spaces : warming

Vermont: Climate Change Poses Challenges for the Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell's thrush perched in an evergreen

Bicknell’s thrush nest in mountain-top evergreen forests in Vermont, areas that are shrinking due to global warming. Photo: © T.B. Ryder

Watch a video of a Bicknell’s thrush feeding her young.

Bicknell’s thrush has one of the most restricted breeding ranges of any North American bird, nesting primarily in stunted spruce-fir forests found at or near the highest elevations of mountains in Vermont and other New England states. These mountain tops are like a chain of islands separated by a sea of habitat that is unsuitable for this species.

As the climate warms and precipitation patterns change, deciduous trees – those that shed their leaves in the fall – are likely to become more prevalent in higher elevations, shrinking the size of the mountain-top evergreen conifer forests that are home to the Bicknell's thrush.

This is just one of many challenges that climate change poses for the rare bird.

Another potential threat is a mismatch between the arrival time in spring of Bicknell’s thrush and other birds, which is regulated by day length, and the abundance of insect prey, linked to temperature. If the peak food supply for birds comes earlier due to warmer spring temperatures, late arriving birds may lay fewer eggs and produce offspring that have less chance of reaching adulthood.

The red squirrel, which also lives in the mountain-top forests, also presents a danger. The squirrels feed mainly on spruce and fir cones, but will also raid the nests of Bicknell’s thrush to feed on eggs and young birds.

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Wyoming: ‘Perfect Storm’ Fuels Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic

An extreme closeup of a mountain pine beetle
Triggered by a “perfect storm” of extended droughts, warm winters, and old, dense forests, mountain pine beetle populations have exploded across a landscape of lodgepole pine trees throughout Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. Photo: USDA Forest Service. Download.

Lodgepole pine forests in parts of Wyoming and other areas of the Intermountain West are being infested by the native mountain pine beetle – a voracious bug smaller than your little fingernail that is thriving in a warming climate.

Triggered by a “perfect storm” of extended droughts, warm winters, and old, dense forests, mountain pine beetle populations have exploded across a landscape of lodgepole pine trees throughout Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.

The mountain pine beetle is a true predator on many western pine trees because to successfully reproduce, the beetles must kill host trees. They typically kill trees already weakened by disease or old age, but even a healthy tree’s defensive mechanisms can be exhausted when beetle numbers are at epidemic levels. The beetle attacks pines in late summer, dispersing a chemical signal that attracts other beetles to mass-attack the tree. When the beetles bore through the bark of the tree, they introduce blue-stain fungus, which can work quickly to kill the tree. Trees stressed by drought and old-age are unable to produce sufficient defenses to fend off beetle attacks. The beetles form tunnels and lay eggs underneath the bark, which hatch into larvae. The larvae spend the winter underneath the bark and emerge as adults in the summer, beginning the cycle again.

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Minnesota: Warmer Temperatures Take a Toll on Minnesota Moose

A bull moose emerging from a freshwater bath
Video iconVideo: To determine how warming temperatures impact moose populations, scientists capture and study the animals, which can reach 7 feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Watch this video to see one of the ways this data is collected.

Minnesota’s iconic moose might be the seven-foot-tall, 1,000 pound version of the canary in the coal mine. The large antlered animal appears on the verge of being pushed out of its southernmost historic range by climate change and other stressors.

Biologists at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say rising temperatures are at least partly to blame for a sharp drop in moose numbers in northwest Minnesota since the early 1990s.  Warming appears to make moose more susceptible to deer-borne parasites and ticks, which often lead to malnutrition and death.

According to aerial winter surveys conducted by the state, northwestern Minnesota’s moose population has dropped from a high of about 4,000 in the early 1980s to fewer than 100 in 2007.  Agassiz Refuge used to boast more than 430 moose; now, it has fewer than 50. 

“For years, Agassiz Refuge was the place to go if you wanted to see moose year-round,” says Agassiz Refuge Manager Maggie Anderson. “Our entrance signs and all of our brochures featured the moose as the emblem of the refuge.” Then, she laments, “in 1995, that all started to change.” These days, moose are rarely seen.

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Maine: Rising Temperatures and Declining Snowfall Spell Trouble for Canada Lynx

A Canada lynx prowling in snow

If snow cover decreases in Maine, the lynx may lose its competitive advantage over other predators. Photo: USFWS.

Photo iconPhotos: See photos from the Canada lynx den study

Video iconVideo: Biologists studying lynx dens in Maine

Canada lynx are uniquely suited for the rigors of life in snowy northern Maine. The furry feline’s thick coat, long, lean legs and massive paws allow it to hunt atop snowpack like a cat on snowshoes. But with temperatures predicted to rise in the coming years, the deep snow cover that the lynx depends on may be significantly reduced, eliminating its competitive advantage over other predators.

While the historic range of Canada lynx used to extend throughout much of the northern United States and the Rockies, today the cat is confined to handful of northern states. Northern Maine currently supports the only viable lynx population in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed Canada lynx as a threatened species in 13 states in 2000. As a federally threatened species whose range has already been greatly diminished, this rare wildcat faces a grave threat in climate change.

“It is hypothesized that as the climate warms, the lynx range will recede and move north,” said John Organ, chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the Service in the Northeast Region. “Without significant snow cover, Maine’s lynx population could be in jeopardy.”

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Nebraska: Wetland Studies Provide Insight into Bird Habitat in a Changing Climate

Birds as far as the eye can see

Long-billed Dowitchers feeding. Joint venture scientists, the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative and state partners in Nebraska are working to develop science-based strategies that can help resource managers increase resilience of Rainwater Basin wetlands to climate change. Photo: Joel Jorgensen/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

During spring migration, as shorebirds, waterfowl and waterbirds make their way from wintering habitats to their northern breeding grounds, the broad Central flyway migratory corridors constrict in central Nebraska, funneling millions of birds through the state’s Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex. 

Rainwater Basin wetlands are shallow playa wetlands that fill each spring with snowmelt.  The flooded wetlands provide critical foraging habitat for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds annually.  While in the Rainwater Basin, birds acquire significant energy and nutrient reserves that they will need to continue migration and initiate nesting.   

In addition to providing critical resting habitat for birds, Rainwater Basin wetlands are the major source of groundwater recharge to the region’s aquifer – meaning they help replenish underground water, ensuring a sustainable supply for birds and humans.

During the past decade, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture has acquired geo-referenced aerial photographs and is analyzing them in a Geographical Information System to monitor and delineate available habitat and contemporary wetland function.  With funding provided by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, joint venture scientists and their colleagues with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are analyzing these data in the context of climate change. 

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Kentucky: For Bats Imperiled by a Mystery Disease, Climate Change is One More Unknown

A brown bat being held with gloves with puffy white patches on his nose

A close-up of a bat shows the white coating of fungus on its muzzle indicative of white-nose syndrome, the disease that is decimating North America’s bat populations. How climate change will affect the virus — and the bats — is unknown. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Camera iconPhotos: White-nose syndrome photos from USFWS on Flickr

Much as water gouges Kentucky’s limestone caverns, white-nose syndrome is cutting through North America’s bat populations. The disease, associated with a fungus (Geomyces destructans) that is new to science, is decimating these nighttime insect eaters and alarming biologists.

How climate change will impact the fungus — and the bats — is unknown. A concern is that,  like other conservation challenges such as the spread of invasive and exotic species, climate change could compound the pressures on already stressed species.

First detected in New York in February 2006, white-nose syndrome has spread rapidly through the Northeast and beyond. This spring Kentucky became the 18th state to confirm the presence of the disease or the fungus. Four Canadian provinces are also affected.  So far, the disease has killed more than one million bats. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists fear some bat species may be wiped out completely.

Among other concerned observers: farmers. The agriculture industry counts on bats to eat an estimated $3.7 billion worth of crop pests.

Scientists are unsure how warmer average temperatures will affect the disease pattern. A century-long warming trend has accelerated over the last three decades.

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Delaware: Betting on Survival in Delaware Bay

A close-up of a red knot

A red knot tagged for research rests and refuels in Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Climate changes such as sea-level rise and increasing storm intensity are adding challenges to red knot survival. Photo: Gregory Breese/USFWS.

Camera iconMore photos: Delaware Bay Estuary Project photoset on Flickr

Video iconRelated video: Crash: A Tale of Two Species on PBS.org

Not far from the casinos of Atlantic City, a different kind of wager takes place each May along the shores of Delaware Bay. 

That’s when red knots, birds the size of a coffee mug, stake their future on the eggs laid by tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs. Without enough crab eggs to fuel them, the long-distance fliers may not survive their 10,000-mile spring trek from the southern tip of South America to their Arctic breeding grounds.

In recent years, the red knots’ bet on the crab eggs has been more of a crapshoot. First, the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait caused an egg shortage. Now, scientists also point to a wild card.

“The peak of horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Bay has not always been aligned with the migration of the red knots,” said Gregory Breese, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s project leader for the Delaware Bay Estuary Project. “That could be related to climate change.”

Changing water temperatures in Delaware Bay and more frequent and intense storms appear to be disrupting the synchronization between the spawning of the crabs and the arrival of the red knots. When waters warm, the crabs lay their eggs earlier, and other creatures may beat red knots to the feast.

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California: Incorporating Climate Change into Planning California’s Bay-Delta Future

A duck cleaning its feathers on water

A Northern Pintail. This dabbling duck can be found in much of the Northern Hemisphere, including the San Joaquin Bay-Delta, although in considerably lower numbers than in the past. Credit: Dan Cox, USFWS. Download.

Camera iconMore Photos: San Francisco Bay-Delta on Flickr

As federal, state and local experts continue to examine the factors contributing to the recent decline of California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem, the effects of climate change have surged to the forefront of study.

The Bay-Delta (Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta-San Francisco Bay Estuary) is considered one of the most vital estuary ecosystems in the U.S. The Delta is at the crossroads of federal and state operated delivery systems that transport water from Northern California to agricultural and urban water users to the south.  It’s a source of drinking water for approximately 22 million people while supporting an approximate $30 billion agricultural industry. The Delta and its watersheds also support several threatened and endangered species, and a popular recreational and commercial fishing industry.

But the Bay-Delta is in the throes of a well-chronicled crisis. Four recent years of below average precipitation have hammered this fragile ecosystem, contributing to the puzzling decline of the Delta fishery and the collapse of California's salmon fishing industry. The combination of decreased water supplies (from the drought), and seasonal water restrictions to protect the threatened delta smelt, endangered Chinook salmon and other species, has created a volatile political situation.

A scenic view of trees and water
Credit: Steve Culberson, USFWS.

Climate change, barely mentioned a decade ago, is now considered a major factor in the Delta planning picture. The rise in sea level, temperature, and changes in the timing of rainfall and snowmelt– all considered effects of climate change – are altering the landscape.

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Idaho: Streamflow Responses to Climate Change - Why Elevation and Geology Matter

A gorgeous view of a flowing, rocky creek surrounded by tall evergreens
Adaptation iconLocation: Pacific Northwest  
Climate Change Impact: Streamflow response changes 

 

Engagement icon

The Opal Creek Valley, in the Willamette National Forest, contains 50 waterfalls, five lakes, and 36 miles of hiking trails. It forms the largest intact stand of Old growth forest in the western Cascades and 500-1000 year old trees are common. The most abundant trees are Douglas-fir, Western Redcedar, and Western Hemlock. Credit: David Patte/USFWS.

The waterways of the Pacific Northwest run deep. They unify the region that includes Idaho, Oregon and Washington by connecting the glaciers of its high volcanoes to its fertile valleys to the Pacific Ocean. Water coursing through streams and rivers is the lifeblood critical to urban and agricultural uses and to the vitality of aquatic ecosystems. Many iconic fish species in Idaho and the region such as salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, bull trout and other native trout species, depend upon cool and plentiful stream flows to survive. But climate change is causing many stream flows to respond differently than they have in the past.

A changing climate is already bringing warmer air temperatures, an increasing proportion of winter precipitation falling as rain, earlier snowmelt and reduced spring snow pack. These changes all manifest in stream flow responses with decreased base flows, rising summer water temperatures, and more frequent winter flooding from rain-on-snow events.

Several bull trout up close underwater
Bull trout were listed as threatened in June 1998. Critical habitat was designated in 2005. A recovery plan was drafted in 2005 and has not been finalized. In January 2010, the USFWS proposed a revision of critical habitat. Credit: USFWS.

“The complex work of conserving and recovering fish populations in the Pacific Northwest has grown substantially more challenging in light of our changing climate – this has become increasingly clear in the last several years with recent scientific assessments and projections,” said Dan Shively, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regional Fish Passage and Habitat Partnerships Coordinator.  “Robust and diverse fish communities require healthy watersheds and habitat; or more simply put, an abundance of cool, clean water.”

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Massachusetts: Changes at Walden Pond

A meadow with yellow flowers

Adaptation iconLocation: Concord, Massachusetts
Size: over 3,800 acres
Open to the public: Yes 
Related Websites:
U.S.A. National Phenology Network

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
USA National Phenology Network           
Project BudBurst
Climate Change Threat: Warming temperatures, invasive species
Contacts: Terri Edwards, USFWS Public Affairs, (413) 253-8324 

Photo at left: A field of native flowers, Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. Credit: USFWS.

Massachusetts: Changes at Walden Pond

by Frank Wolff

“It is astonishing how soon and unexpectedly flowers appear, when the fields are scarcely tinged with green. Yesterday, for instance, you observed only the radical leaves of some plants; to-day you pluck a flower.”  -- Henry David Thoreau

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Concord, Massachusetts. The area was home to a dedicated naturalist in the mid-1800s. He built himself a house on 14 acres of woods on the bank of Walden Pond. He dutifully and diligently recorded the flowering times of hundreds of plants as well as the behavior of rabbits, red squirrels, mice, birds and other animals for six years.

A photo of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Credit: Photo courtesy of The Thoreau Society Collection at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods

His name was Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau provided an extensive array of data that has proven invaluable as a baseline for phenological research that continues today. Phenology is the study of events in nature that are influenced by climate and seasonal change.

A study conducted by Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack found that climate change is causing many plants to flower much earlier today than they did in the past. The two researchers used Thoreau’s observations, as well as the work of Alfred Hosmer, another naturalist who studied the ecosystem around Concord, as a comparison to their own modern-day observations. Their research concludes that in Concord, plants are now flowering seven days earlier on average than they did in Thoreau’s time.

But not all plants are equally impacted by climate changes. Some species have the ability to track seasonal temperature change and will flower earlier when temperatures are warmer. Other species don’t track temperatures as well, and will continue to flower at the same time every year—regardless of temperature variations. The ones that don’t track temperatures as well are more likely to suffer a decline in numbers; they also tend to be related to one another, so entire plant families are impacted.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012