Category Archives: Anthony D Barnosky

#forewordFriday Heatstroke

In anticipation of the Society for Conservation Biology, North American Congress for Conservation Biology meeting that starts this weekend, get familiar with Anthony Barnosky and his important book, Heatstroke.

“[Barnosky]…argues brilliantly that conservation biology can no longer focus on saving [ecosystems]. The reason is simple: Thanks to global warming, the ecosystem we work to save today will have a different climate tomorrow.”  —Washington Post

“Read this book, and reflect on your own views about humanity’s place in nature. Then plant a tree, walk to work, and go and call your political representative.”  —Nature

We’ve got the eBook file on sale for $9.99 (discount taken at checkout).

Geography of Hope

People sometimes ask me what they will learn by reading Heatstroke. Basically there are two key messages.

One I’ve already highlighted in past blogs and in a recent op-ed. Simply put, the first message is this: we’ve got a problem.

Global warming by itself—even absent any other environmental threats—could cause the nature that humanity has long tried to save for its children to slip through our grasp, even if we could hold greenhouse gas emissions to their present values.

Critically, as climate change outpaces nature’s ability to adapt, what it will take to save two of nature’s three faces, ecosystem services and biodiversity, will become exactly the opposite of what it will take to save the third, a feeling of wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but my wife and I want all three for our kids. We were talking about that when she showed me Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, where he writes about the Geography of Hope—three words that became the title of Heatstroke‘s last chapter.

Those three words encapsulate the second key message—and I have to tell you, I think it is the more important of the two. We don’t have to watch nature die. We can actually treat nature’s heatstroke, now that we recognize its warning signs.

The Geography of Hope lies in marshalling the world’s scientists, conservation organizations, and governments—and ultimately, the world’s people—to coordinate a new conservation strategy I call Keep, Connect, and Create.

“Keep” refers to ensuring that places on Earth where nature still thrives (like the 12 percent of its lands already protected as nature reserves) are retained, and keeping on with successful initiatives already underway, especially some relatively new ones designed to integrate biodiversity conservation with the everyday habits of people, like “win-win ecology” and trading in ecosystem services.

“Connect” requires acceleration of ongoing efforts to connect natural areas with habitat corridors, with the new twist that the corridor strategies now must take into account that climatic zones are shifting and will continue to do so over the next few decades and into the next century.

“Create” is the critical new component, for it requires creating a whole new concept of nature reserves. No longer can we stick to the “one-stop-shopping” conservation strategy of setting aside a big enough piece of land with the thought that in one fell swoop we will protect all of Mother Nature’s Holy Trinity: ecosystem services, biodiversity, and feelings of wilderness.

To save ecosystem services and biodiversity, we may have to move species from some places where their needed climate disappears into others where their needed climate exists. To save feelings of wilderness, we’ll need the opposite, places where we don’t mess with the species composition, where we simply let nature find its own way into this new age.

That means deliberately designating two separate-but-equal kinds of nature reserves, one with the explicit goal of saving species no matter what; the other with the explicit goal of watching what happens to nature if we keep our hands off.

It also means some hard decisions on some very controversial questions. Is it better to watch a species go extinct as its climate disappears, or risk the ecological consequences of introducing it to a climatically-suitable place it has never been? And if the answer is to move it, whose back yard do we move it into?

A tall order, perhaps, to shift away from the prevailing wisdom of nature conservation crystallized in the Leopold Report as: “to preserve, or where necessary to recreate, the ecologic scene as viewed by the first European visitors.” Articulated for America’s national parks in 1963, that conservation ethic has provided a sort of guiding light ever since.

But the visionaries who wrote those words never anticipated a world where the climatic rug would be pulled right out from under the species and landscapes they were trying to protect. That’s today’s world, though, and the world of our children.

The last chapter of Heatstroke is titled Geography of Hope because I firmly believe that if we move forward in the ways suggested there, it is well within humanity’s power to save the aspects of nature we value and need. But, the Geography of Hope has always been a shifting landscape; in an age of global warming, it’s also a rapidly shrinking one for many species. We don’t have much time to get it right.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Nature-al Resources

What comes to mind when you hear the words “natural resources?” Oil. Water. Nature.

Nature? In fact, yes, nature is one of the big ones. Ecologists and economists have a name for the natural resources that nature provides: “ecosystem services.” They’ve calculated that globally the dollar-value of those services could be $54 trillion annually in 1997 dollars–for comparison the Gross World Product for 2008 was around $62 trillion.

Most people don’t call nature’s resources “ecosystem services” though. Instead, they use words like ‘”skiing,” “fishing,” “ranching,” or “vacationing.” As it turns out, those are exactly the kinds of things that are going to be impacted by global warming–in ways that make entire state’s economies feel the heat.

Those particular examples came out of a recent Climate Action Team report issued for the state I live in, which pointed out that global warming was likely going to cost California hundreds of millions of dollars annually by impacts on ecosystem services. I wrote about a little more about that on KQED’s Climate Watch blog, if you’re interested.

For the place you live, the examples may be different, but the moral is the same. Nature depends on climate. We depend on nature.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: Now for Some Good News

My extended family tells me they’re getting a little depressed about hearing all the bad things that might happen from global warming. So I guess it’s time to point out that maybe it’s not as bleak as it seems. Here’s the good news.

We live in a world that, despite the unwitting impacts of humanity, is still in pretty good shape. If you define wilderness as places that have fewer than five people per square km, with at least 70% of the natural vegetation intact, in patches of at least 10,000 square km, you are talking about 46% of Earth’s land surface. That’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and offers reason for hope. Humanity also clearly values unspoiled places as emotional touchstones, as evidenced by some 12% of Earth’s land being designated as national parks, reserves, or similarly legislated areas where some aspect of nature is protected.

At least some of those areas are still ecologically intact to the extent that they are working very much as they were long before modern society got its hands on them. The Yosemite area still has pretty much the full complement of mammal species it had in John Muir’s time. Yellowstone still has nearly all the mammals that have inhabited the park for at least three thousand years. In Africa, there are lots of charismatic megafauna left, and in fact overall community structure in many nature reserves there is not too different than it has been for tens of thousands of years.

Bottom line: there’s still an awful lot worth saving out there. We may be looking at the brink, but we’re not over it yet. So far we’ve been reasonable, if far from perfect, stewards of nature.

We don’t want to blow it now, and we could in an instant. That’s why the danger signs we’re seeing in Earth’s special places are particularly noteworthy—shifts of Yosemite’s species to higher ground as climate heats up, decline in Yellowstone’s amphibian species as drought hits the park year after year, and dwindling populations of large animals in South African parks as the dry season gets too long. These are early warning signs of heatstroke for nature, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.

Which brings us to the second bit of good news—we can do something to prevent the worst consequences of global warming, including consequences for nature. A critical piece of the solution is to take action to slow Earth’s heat-up—and that means at the personal level, the corporate level, and at the national and international levels. For nature, we will also have to implement new conservation strategies to account for some amount of global warming that is inevitable.

Lest you think it’s un-doable, remember two things.

  1. Individual actions really are important. Just for example, changing light bulbs to CFLs. Multiply out the lightbulbs changed by hundreds of millions of households and businesses, and estimates of how much CO2 just that one action would keep out of the atmosphere range from 1.6 gigatons over 25 years, to saving as much as 2.4 gigatons over 10 years. To put that in perspective, around 3 gigatons is about what seems likely be added over the next 10 years if business goes on as usual.
  2. Never underestimate what people can do when they put their minds to it.

And therein lies perhaps the best news yet. Human ingenuity and potential are enormous. If we just put our minds to a common task.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: Hoping for the Best

I admit it. In my heart of hearts, I’m hoping for the best. Those scenarios of climate change we see splashed across the newspapers and magazines include a wide range of possibilities, and I keep my fingers crossed that we’ll end up closer to the best case.

But just three weeks ago the best case got a lot worse. A group of climate scientists meeting in Copenhagen announced that sea level very likely is going to rise almost twice as much as we thought.

The old estimates were not so old—they were issued in 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) came out with their latest summary report, which suggested that sea level would likely rise somewhere between seven inches and two feet by the year 2100.

glacierProblem was, in 2007 the IPCC had a limitation they had to work around—basically, the models of the time couldn’t crunch all the numbers necessary to interpret how the ice sheets would react to a warming climate. Ultimately, it’s ice sheets grounded on land that melt and pour new water into the oceans, causing them to rise.

Now the models of how glaciers will melt have gotten better, and we’ve actually watched glaciers melt more than we thought they would in the past two years. That’s what makes the news about sea level worse. The new, better estimates say that the water will rise at least between one-and-a-half and three feet by the year 2100. Some say six feet is not out of the question.

Three feet means around 600 million people concentrated in coastal cities and islands will be affected by flooding, and millions of those will become climate refugees heading for higher ground. This is not in the distant future, by the way—it would happen as children playing on earth today, mine and yours included, grow into middle and old age.

The economic and societal implications are staggering. But there are also some equally staggering ecological costs that the world will suffer if we don’t consciously think about how to head them off.

Sea level rise of three feet would cause the disappearance of entire ecosystems from the face of the earth—many of which we have invested considerable energy and money in trying to keep alive.

An obvious example is Everglades National Park. This is the third largest park in the lower 48 states. It protects the largest biologically intact area east of the Rocky Mountains, the largest freshwater sawgrass prairie in the United States, and the largest protected mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere.

We as a society and a culture value these things, so much so that Everglades was actually established “not as a scenic showplace but as a biologic marvel,” for the American people, but it didn’t stop there. The place is valued by the whole world: it is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.

The superintendent of Everglades explained all this to a congressional subcommittee back in 2007, as he was outlining what to expect from the IPCC estimates of sea level rising between seven inches and two feet. The current estimates of one-and-a-half to three feet, of course, would have even greater consequences for the park.

What would a three-foot rise in sea level do to the Everglades?

  • Submerge a large portion of it: 60% of the park is less than 3 feet above mean sea level. In fact, a sea level rise of three feet would lop off the southern fifth of Florida.
  • Lead already endangered species like panthers, manatees, and alligators towards extinction. The park is home to 69 species that have been listed as threatened or endangered.
  • Submerge one of the rarest ecosystems on Earth. The park’s ecosystems are unique in the world, because they contain a mixture of South, Central, and North American species.
  • Destroy ecosystem services that would affect drinking water for up to five million South Florida residents, and cost millions of dollars in lost local revenues. The park now fuels a large part of the South Florida economy, from the money spent by more than one million people who visit the Everglades each year.

Ironically, at just about the same time the scientists in Copenhagen announced that sea level would rise enough to drown much of the Everglades, President Obama authorized an omnibus spending bill that included $183.4 million for Everglades restoration work (which could translate as some 1200 local jobs). That kind of ecological restoration takes on a whole new urgency now, and a whole new importance. All of a sudden, the problem is not only to restore the Everglades ecosystem to what it used to be, but to save it from disappearing altogether.

The problem doesn’t stop at the Everglades boundary. The dramatic impacts of global warming in Florida are in principle the same as what will be affecting all of the ecological reserves that we have spent a long time and a lot of money trying to protect. Each reserve may seem to have its own set of problems—in Everglades, rising tides; for polar bears in the Arctic, melting ice; for Yellowstone in Wyoming, pine beetles killing forests because winters are no longer cold enough to kill the beetles; for Kruger in South Africa, a dry season that gets so dry many big mammals can no longer live there. But each of these specific problems in specific places traces back to the same thing: we’re making the world’s climate too hot, too fast.

The global problem that emerges is that these last vestiges of so-called “natural” ecosystems are the last refuges of a large portion of the world’s biodiversity. As we change the climate within the boundaries of those protected areas, the protected species in them have no place to run to.

As I said, I’m still hoping for the best, but I’m also a realist. Now the best hope seems to lie not in hoping global warming won’t be as dramatic as all the signs say it will, but in realizing that because we’re changing earth’s climate so fast, the fate of nature is in our hands.

Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: So What’s Wrong with a Little Global Warming

Be afraid (but don’t panic).

On the first day of spring, the only thing I was afraid of (maybe even a little panicked) was that I didn’t have enough warm clothes.  I was in Boston, mid-afternoon, and the thermometer on my dashboard registered in the low 30′s—that would be Fahrenheit.   Spring?  I don’t think so.  I could see my breath, even though the sun was shining.  A couple of days later, as my wife and I were walking across a college campus in Maine that our California-bred daughter was checking out before applying, it was even colder, right around 18°F with a biting wind, in what should have been the heat of the day.  Although I didn’t actually ask, I didn’t get the sense anyone was thinking too much about global warming, except maybe to say, “Bring it on.”

It was right around then that the penny really dropped for me—if you live in a climate like this, a little global warming doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.  Especially when they’re telling you a major impact will be flowers blooming a week or so earlier.   Who in their right mind wouldn’t want that to happen?

Well, it depends what you’re willing to sacrifice—nothing comes without a cost, after all.   In this case, the sacrifice seems to be loss of many of the flowers we like, and increasing numbers of the kinds of plants we don’t particularly care for.  At least that’s what seems to be going on at one of nature’s icons just a short distance outside of Boston—the woods around Walden Pond.  These are the same woods where Henry David Thoreau found his muse, and where he passed the time by carefully recording what plants first bloomed on which days.  Some 150 years later— that is to say, from 2003 to 2007— Harvard and Boston University biologists systematically strolled those same woods and replicated Thoreau’s surveys.

What they found, as they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, November 4, 2008, vol. 105, pgs., 17029–17033), was that, on average, around Walden Pond plants are indeed flowering about a week earlier than they were during Thoreau’s time, coincident with local warming of about 4.3°F over the past 100 years.  But hidden in that “average” are exactly which plants are doing well and which ones are not.  A disproportionately large number of weedy, non-native species are the ones blooming earlier; these plants seem to have the genetic and behavioral flexibility to take advantage of those earlier warmer temperatures and blast out their flowers, getting an early start on reproduction.  But the charismatic wildflowers—things like buttercups, anemones and asters, dogwoods, lilies, orchids, St. John’s worts, violets, and others are losing out.  For whatever reason, they seem not to have the ability to move their flowering clock forward to get a jump on spring.  As a result, they are declining in abundance, to the point where they seem on the road out of the area.

Now the “be afraid” part.

It turns out those wildflower species that are losing out belong to several different “families” on the evolutionary Tree of Life.  It’s not just one or two families—it’s more like 16.  And it’s not just one or two species in each family—it’s more like a quarter to a half of the species in each. What seems to be happening is a wholesale pruning of many branches of the Tree of Life around Walden Pond, with global warming being the chainsaw.

Loss of aesthetics is one thing, loss of livelihood another.  That too seems on the horizon from global warming in the Northeast.  As we drive through Vermont, it’s hard not to notice the roadside signs to drop in and enjoy fresh maple syrup, a crop that pumps more than $13 million per year into the state’s economy.  Another recent study reported in PNAS (2008, vol. 105, pgs. 4197-4202) documents that in the past 40 years maples and other hardwoods in Vermont have been declining in their traditional growing areas, and marching to higher elevations in response to local warming of about 2°F.  Marching upslope is fine as long as you don’t run out of mountaintop, which is destined to happen.  In fact, models that link maples to their required climate indicate that the new center of the maple syrup industry is on the move not just upslope, but north, to Canada.

As for me, I’m putting on my jacket (and my sweater and my vest) and heading south.  We’re continuing our drive down into New York, then we’ll circle back to Boston.  I think on the way I may stop at Walden Pond and see what’s blooming.

———

Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: After the Storm

When you’re in the middle of a forest fire, trees exploding all around you, smoke burning your lungs, and fireballs dropping from the sky, it’s hard to think about much except getting out of there alive.  That’s kind of where we are with thinking about global warming nowadays—the direct impacts on people.  How many lose their homes when sea level rises?  What new diseases are going to make their way out of the tropics?  How many dollars will it take to cut carbon emissions?

But really, those flames and fireballs are just the beginning of the problem, if you survive them. It’s the aftermath you have to live with—a burnt out shell of a forest.  Not much fun to live there, if you even can.

That’s why it’s important to think about how global warming is changing not only what people can do, but is actually changing the Earth we depend on. It’s changing nature itself. 

By “nature” I mean those things you need that you may not even know you need. 

Things like ocean fisheries that you think of as tuna in your sandwich, or compounds in tropical plants and snakes that you think of as little pills to keep your blood pressure from rising to dangerously high levels.

Another name for those kinds of nature is “ecosystem services.”  Ecosystem services are the ways we benefit from the non-human species that we’re riding the planet with. 

Of course, species aren’t much good if they’re extinct, which is why people worry about another face of nature, called “biodiversity”.  The more species on Earth, the higher the biodiversity, and that’s a good thing for ecosystem services.  The problem is, biodiversity is dwindling—best estimate is that in the past four centuries, species have gone extinct somewhere between 17 and 377% faster than they ought to, as judged from extinction rates over the long course of geological time.  (And that’s without global warming, by the way). 

Loss of biodiversity means more than loss of ecosystem services—there is the intrinsic loss of the species themselves.  We’ve already got a world that lacks half of the big animals that should be there (things like mammoths, giant elk, giant beavers, and wombats the size of a small car), and many of the small ones as well.  And of what’s left, many are teetering on the brink. For instance, by last count, around one quarter—more than 1300 species—of the 5487 known species of mammals are on the road to extinction. You have to ask yourself—would the world really be as good a place without chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, pandas, and tigers, to name just a few?

There’s a third face of nature too: wild places, no matter what species are found there, places bigger than ourselves that feed the human spirit.  These are places where people don’t control—or at least only influence minimally—which species live there, and how those species interact.

The problem is that global warming all of a sudden puts all three faces of nature—ecosystem services, species (ultimately biodiversity itself), and the feeling of wilderness—under siege as never before. 

Which means that as far as nature and global warming are concerned, there are three rules to live by:

1. Be afraid (but don’t panic)
2. It’s not too late (but it will be soon)
3. We can fix it (to some extent)

Stay tuned. I’ll touch on each of these in later blogs.

———

Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.

anthonybarnosky

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.