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Trends, changes, World Series make for one hot season

The Wildlife Forecast

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke

Our wildlife suffered through a cold winter in Florida. We also endured a steamy June. What does it all mean? The temperatures were below normal during the winter and above normal in the spring. It's not rocket science, it's not static, and it is impossible to draw conclusions about climate change with just a few weeks' worth of data.

Yet that's what many of us do when it comes to climate change. Either side could "prove" the other side wrong based on the weather that occurred over the past six months. Both would be wrong, because that's not how scientifically meaningful predictions are made.

For example the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Milwaukee Brewers 15-3 recently. This stellar win has little to do with the Pirates overall season. One game does not a World Series winner make, just as one cold January does not a trend make.

Dr. Thomas Eason, deputy director of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), goes to the water to make his point about trends.

"Think of the ebb and flow of high tide at the beach.  Even though the tide overall is rising, each individual wave may be smaller or larger.  At any point in time, you could be standing in knee-deep or ankle-deep water, but after a few hours, you would be in chest-deep water," he said. "Climate change is about 30-year-plus trends that will have smaller trends within them."

Climate is the average of weather conditions, and seasonal scales are examined to determine how one season compares to the other seasons in the past. Timescales used for making predictions are based on models over decades and centuries.

"The long-term data solidly point to a warming climate, whether looking at centuries or decades," Eason said. "However, what happened in the past winter or what happens this summer only tells us what took place in that season. It's the addition of those data to the overall trend that will matter to the scientists attempting to model climate change, and it will matter to the fish and wildlife that will have to respond to those changing conditions."

The studies point to humans playing a direct role in the changes, most notably since the beginning of the Industrial Age. Other natural factors also are a consideration. El Niño, with its warming trends, affects weather around the globe, as does La Niña, bringing in colder winds during the winter. In the Atlantic, natural changes in wind and sea temperatures create a change in hurricane frequency.

"A changing climate has existed since pre-Columbian times, yet fish and wildlife science has treated climate as something that is static," Eason said. "However, we are now forced to confront this fallacy and move into a dynamic-state mindset when thinking about managing fish and wildlife."

Climate is determined by the amount of energy escaping and entering earth. NOAA reports that since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we have seen an abundance of atmospheric greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning and deforestation. Since 1750, carbon dioxide has increased by 31 percent, which is higher than seen in 420,000 years.

All of this added together means our climate is changing - some of it naturally, some of it manmade. More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "Nothing endures but change." Maybe it's time to understand this concept and be prepared for anything.

Dr. Jean Brennan, with the Defenders of Wildlife and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke at the FWC's 2008 climate change summit and stressed Florida's vulnerability to climate change. She advised that wildlife will not be able to adapt as quickly as the climate changes and will do one of three things: shift range, adapt or face extinction.

By looking at the overall trends in climate that have occurred during the past 50 years in Florida and modeling potential future changes, we can plan flexible strategies to assist wildlife as habitat ranges shift, and we can help them adapt. But we cannot sit by and idly discuss the coldest winter as a way to debunk climate change; nor can we attest to global warming because of a hotter than usual June.

Brennan stressed the development of a roadmap "that will be essential to ensuring that Florida's fish and wildlife survive until we are able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - the driver of the climate change impacts."

Since change is inevitable, we can change a habit or two that might lessen our impact upon the earth. If it saves an animal from extinction, then who cares about one little baseball game? We will have won the whole World Series.

FWC Facts:
Seagrasses stabilize the sea bottom with their roots and rhizomes (underground stems) in much the same way that land grasses retard soil erosion.

Learn More at AskFWC