Microhabitats may save the frogs, but who will save the Californians?

Photo Credit: Tim J Keegan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tim J Keegan via Compfight cc

Having grown up on the East Coast, droughts are a little foreign to me. Every spring, the city I lived in experienced about 3 weeks on non-stop rain, followed by a summer besieged by extremely violent lighting storms that tore down trees and destroyed church steeples.  If anything, we always seemed to have too much water.  Basements were always flooded; rivers overflowed; windows, roofs and doors constantly leaked dampness through the year.  There were certainly many things to worry about, but a lack of water was really never one of them.

That’s why living in California during the recent drought has been such a weird experience.  The state has already declared that 17 rural areas may run out of water in the next few months.  The State Water Project, which distributes municipal water, announced that it is not going to be able supplement local agencies supplies this year.  Instead of spending their time considering what to plant this year, farmers are wondering whether they should bother planting at all.

With a drought declared, my friends and neighbors have started changing their behaviors as well.  Drains are blocked to save shower water that can be used to flush the toilets and water plants; the faucet is monitored with extreme vigilance, catching every last errant drop; and when a few drops of rain do fall outside, people rush out with pots and pans trying to catch as much as possible.  Light-hearted jokes that were initially made about peeing in the garden to water the plants end with people dropping their smile, pausing and saying, “seriously, we’re considering it.”

It’s like we’re at sea, having lost all our fresh water overboard and threatened with the reality that soon we may have to drink our own urine to survive. Droughts, something I never gave any thought to for much of my life, are now something I have to think about constantly.  Yes, this is extreme, but extreme, it seems, is the new normal, and the question is, how will we manage in this new more extreme environment?

Maybe we can take a tip from other animals and how they survive when their environment becomes a little more extreme.  It turns out that some animals are able to find refuge in their own habitats when things become just a little too wacky.

What do I mean? Well, close your eyes for a minute and think about a forest, a rainforest, let’s say, that’s steamy hot on the best of days.  Animals there are probably pretty used to the heat, but even they have an upper limit of what they can handle, and on occasion those upper limits will be hit (particularly under a warming climate).  This is particularly tricky for animals like frogs and lizards, which are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature varies with the environment.

So if things get a little too toasty, where is a little animal to go?  They’re sort of trapped.  Trapped like we are here in California with a major drought on our hands.  But actually it turns out that forest animals may be a little more lucky than we are.  They have something called microhabitats.

What’s that? Well, let me break it down for you: micro is small and habitat is a fancy design firm that sells side tables for $350.  Oh, it’s also a place you live too…if you’re some sort of animal.  Which we are.

So microhabitats are like habitats within habitats that give animals an extra hide-out.  For you this might be the girls bathroom during a really long and boring blind date.  In the forest, this could be the soil, a tree-hole, vegetation or even epiphytes (which are plants that grow on other plants).  These areas may retain more moisture, or may be cooler on a really hot day.  They’re mini-habitats within larger habitats, and many animals enjoy them.

These little habitats help protect ectotherms like frogs and lizards from extreme condition, for a limited amount of time.  When it comes to warm temperatures, these wee buggers can hide in a cooler micro-environment and hang out  until things cool off.  Similar little sanctuaries could be incredibly important to animals in the face of climate change, where extreme temperatures might make their traditional ranges more challenging.

So, phew. Climate change for frogs and lizards is solved!

But of course not really; don’t go running through the streets declaring that animals are being saved from climate change simply because of microhabitats.  This doesn’t make up for changes in rainfall, or changes to animal behavior, or plant-animal interactions, or even how animals of differing body size will respond to extreme temperatures.  But microhabitats are an interesting ray of hope anyway, and certainly worth additional investigation.

Now if only we could get similar sorts of microhabitats going here in California to save us from our extreme climate events we are experiencing.  What would they look like?  Instead of epiphytes or tree-holes, maybe we could suck our water beds dry? Recycle the tears of the environmentalists? Animals may have a trick or two up their sleeve, but humans have had a little less time to figure this extreme climate business out.

Here’s hoping we get a little cleverer in the future.  I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.

Further Reading
Microhabitats reduce animal’s exposure to climate extremes 

Everybody poops, some animals also eat it

Photo Credit: Amy Loves Yah via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Amy Loves Yah via Compfight cc

Living in East Bay is always an interesting experience.  Where else can you engage in paratheater, uncomfortable zones of fun and midwifery for humanity all in one weekend?

Living in a former pagan temple, I get even more exposure to the whimsy of the local community than most.  People not realizing that my house is now just a regular home, send spell books hand-bound in goat skin and leave tomes to human spiritual evolution at my door step.  Men in orange robes run across traffic to hand me texts exclaiming “you look so spiritual!”  And more than once I’ve had to assess whether a simple dinner party invitation was a stealth attempt at an encounter group.

In all honesty, as much as I gripe about it,  I really love it.  I love the cults, I love the whimsy, I love the uncomfortable zones of fun…or I like the idea of it, I’ve actually never been. I love the Bay!  Except for one thing.  The poop.  The entire Bay area has a serious problem with poop.

There is poop everywhere! Escalators in downtown San Francisco get shut down from too much excrement, poop piles line the sidewalks above every major subway stop, mailboxes are removed because some dude just couldn’t stop leaving his non-mail deposits there.  As you wander the streets contemplating deep thoughts, you have to keep one eye on the sidewalk to avoid the deep [expletive].  Of course the recent drought hasn’t really helped, because rather than washing away all the feces, a lack of water leads to the poop desiccating like mummified statutes memorizing our healthy and vibrant colons.

And it’s not like anyone wants to deal with the poop.  Who wants to be head poop-cleaner for the city?  That’s a job that I just don’t think you could fill.  In nature though there are plenty of animals whose jobs it is to eliminate the poop – because let’s be serious, without them the woods would be one giant toilet.  In addition to microbes, there are flies and butterflies that consume poop in the wild (sorry butterflies can be gross too ).  But most infamous of the poop-eaters are the dung beetles, who not only eat it, but some varieties use it to attract a mate – hey baby, I got you this giant turd, let’s do it!  If only dating people was that easy.

Now, there are a couple different flavors of dung beetles: the rollers, who roll the poop into balls; the tunnelers, who bury the poop where they found it; and the dwellers, who just chill in the poop where ever it falls.  This is sort of like the difference between you and your college roommates: there was the fastidiously clean roommate who hid her filth in her own room, there was the one who tried to shove things behind the couch where no one would notice, and then there was you who just let it all hang out, cause like, whatever it’s college, right?

You know I mock these poop-lovers (and you, slob), but really they are incredibly important to ecosystems.  They consume and bury poop, keeping it away from flies, reducing the risk of poop-related diseases, and enriching the soil as they go.  Also, they make an amazing necklace charm…so I’ve heard, from the Egyptians.  Now they were fashion forward!

Given how important these animals are to de-pooping the landscape, you may be interested to hear that much like many other organisms, these little poop-dudes are changing their habitat in response to a warming climate.  Yes, like other plants and animals, many dung beetle species are expanding their habitat and moving up mountainsides.  This is a pretty common thing that we’ve seen with other species, where a warming climate makes higher elevation locations a little more hospitable to organisms, allowing them to expand their habitat.

What does an expanded habitat mean?  Well, it could be a good thing if you were worried about poop in these higher elevation regions.  Or it might be bad thing if you are concerned about preserving habitats as they are, and are concerned about the impacts of moving ecosystems or species.  Or it could be a gross thing, if you find poop and the animals that make love inside them disgusting.  Or it could be a really satisfying thing, if like, you are into that sort of thing.  No judgment.

I for one am in favor of dung beetles expanding their habitat.  I just wish they would consider moving to the Bay.  Yeah, the housing is expensive, and the enlightenment runs rich, but I can’t think of a better place to find some sweet, sweet feces, laying desiccated in the street just waiting for a special coprophage to enjoy the fruits of the land.  I can see the ads now, “California, the land of plenty…especially for the dung beetle.”

Further Reading:

Climate change and elevational range shifts: evidence from dung beetles in two European mountain ranges


The Changing Climate of the East Bay

Photo Credit: Christopher Chan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher Chan via Compfight cc

Living in Berkeley is a surreal experience.  Once the center of a political and social revolution, it’s now like wandering a graveyard that’s been infiltrated by high-tech picnickers. As you wander the streets you meet the ghosts of revolutions past, sometimes reformed into soccer grandmas with pressed silver hair and hand-hammered African jewelry, sometimes in the form of the homeless selling newspapers packing their lives into a few small bags, and sometimes as continued revolutionaries determined to ensure that the voice of their generation echoes through the streets everyday.  And what are these new battles that must be fought?  Is it police brutality in Oakland? Is it pervasive government spying?  What about the closing of youth homeless shelters in the summer?

Well those are all well and good, but the revolutionaries of my town have bigger things in mind: sleep-ins against moving the post office (it *is* in a really nice building), legislative attempts to outlaw homelessness (sorry, I mean sitting on the streets), and most recently, a campaign to save the flammable and invasive Eucalyptus trees (“because they didn’t ask to be brought here” – actual quote).

So what’s my beef with eucalyptus?  Actually nothing.  With their colorful streaked bark and sweet medicinal smell, they provide a bucolic stroll through the Berkeley hills.  They are alluring, hypnotizing, towering trees…but they also spread like wildfire…and spread wildfires… so they’re not great for a high fire area like California.  But logic isn’t something that we’re used to using in my part of the Bay, and it comes out clearly when you try to figure out why a flammable tree native to Australia would have been planted in a high fire area in the first place.

What intrigues me isn’t the incredibly dishy local politics associated with the cutting of these trees; it’s how these fair trees will fare under climate change.  In addition to being good fodder for local politics, eucalyptus are also a popular plantation species because they make rockin’ paper.  So people everywhere are actually pretty interested in how these guys will respond to a warmer, more carbon-rich environment.

The thing is that plants often actually get used to new environments, changing their internal physiology when things get gradually warmer, or wetter, or whatever, to keep up their performance (i.e. keep photosynthesis chugging and all).  This is referred to acclimatization, which is similar to the phenomenon of why you stopped asking your husband to pick up his socks after 35 years of marriage, and how I’ve gotten used to waiting 45 minutes for an avocado-sprout sandwich since moving to the Bay– we’ve both acclimatized to our new environments…I guess.

So if plants are these big acclimatizers, will eucalyptus follow suit, or go rogue?  And as usual, it sort of depends.  ‘On what?’  You ask.  ‘The levels of carbon dioxide?  The warming treatment?’

Well, sure, sure, yes those things are important, but actually so is the time of year.  To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season…four of them really, and they interact with the local environment to impact plants.

You see, CO2 enhances photosynthesis in these plants year-round, but just a bit more in the summer.  Meanwhile, a warmer treatment increased photosynthesis in the winter, but not in the summer—maybe they’re not the greatest acclimatizers when things get too hot?

So now we have an additional treatment to consider when thinking about how climate change will impact plant systems: temperature, CO2… and seasons?  Great, that’ll make research that much easier.  There is an upside, I suppose:  a limitation to photosynthesis in hot, hot summers might actually keep the eucalyptus from taking off outside of its native range—more than it already has, I mean.  This may add an interesting twist to the local politics in these here parts.  Why worry about human intervention, when we could just wait for climate to restrict these plants for us?

One final note for all y’all out there who are still living in 1995 and think that climate change is great for plants because it’ll make them bigger and badder and all that, these plants that I’m talking about here are in plantations, where they are watered and fertilized and petted and loved and possibly danced around by moonlight.  Unless you want to do that for every plant on earth (and please, don’t let me stop you), plants will typically run into some sort of other limitation outside of temperature or carbon dioxide…like nitrogen…or water…or someone with an axe.  So y’know, keep the science in mind when you are blah blah blahing about this later tonight with your pals.

In the meantime, maybe climate change effects on the local forests will heat up the local politics in my part of the world.  Or maybe not.  We probably have bigger fish to fry; in fact I think I see someone trying to feed a homeless person.  Do you have the number for the local cops?

 Further Reading:
Photosynthesis of temperate Eucalyptus globulus trees outside their native range has limited adjustment to elevated CO2 and climate warming.



Climate Change for the Very Picky Eater

Photo Credit: Pamela Graham via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Pamela Graham via Compfight cc

San Francisco is known for its culinary delights; there’s just about every type of restaurant in town for every kind of diet.  Paleos, GAPSers, macrobiotics, raw juicers and frugivores can delight in the many delectable treats available around every corner.  We have everything from Jakartan street food (the menu of which actually taunts that “you will not like this!”) to vegan chickin’ and waffles.  People have business cards with titles such as “Broth Maker” and “Kombucha Sommalier”.   It’s the land of the $4 toast and the $65 juice, but also the $2 taco – personally I recommend the taco, for price and pleasure.

So in a place where your daily food options are everything from pork ban mi to toasted quinoa, where do you go for something really different?  Why not try the restaurant where you can’t see the food? That’s where I took my husband for his recent birthday—a little place that serves you dinner in the dark. I mean the pitch dark, as in zero light at all.

Now you’re probably thinking that eating in pure blackness has got to be an incredibly wild and enriching experience.  All of your other senses must be enhanced by the loss of your eyesight.  You become more conscious of the taste.  The smells become overwhelming.  The texture of the food becomes ineffable.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary!  You delight in every last nibble.

So, what’s it like to eat pork chops and polenta in the pitch dark?  It’s like….eating pork chops and polenta in the pitch dark.  Um, yeah.

If the food is dry, well, the lack of light doesn’t help.  And if the drinks are too sweet?  Changing the lighting doesn’t really change that.  In fact, the loss of vision becomes a bit of an impediment to enjoyment because every small imperfection in the food becomes extremely noticeable. Turns out, sensory deprivation isn’t the best way to enjoy mediocre food.

Now you may think that I am being fussy, which could be possible, though I have to say I’ve eaten my share of grasshoppers and black eggs without a single complaint (except about the antennae getting stuck in my teeth, because yuck).  But for the record, I’d like to say that if I am a fussy eater, I am certainly not the only one.  In fact people in general are not the only fussy eaters out there.  Turns out bugs, yes, insects can be pretty fussy too, particularly under a warming climate.

What do I mean?  Well, I’ve talked a lot before about the effects of climate change on plants, particularly plants that create drugs, because that is all people really seem to care about these days (freaks).  And I’ve even talked about how climate change is going to influence insects and even the things that eat insects!  Like, wow, lots of things being affected here.  But I haven’t really talked about the effect of climate change on plant quality for the insects that rely on them for food.  Yeah, food quality even matters to insects.  Picky little bastards.

So, how does temperature influence plant quality?  Well, temperature levels during plant growth can affect everything from photosynthesis to nutrient availability, all of which impact a plant’s nutritional quality.  So if you have a plant that is grown at a higher temperature, depending on the plant, it may actually be less nutrient-rich.  And what happens when insects eat plants that are of poor nutritional quality?  Well, they eat a lot more of it.  Kind of like how when people eat McDonalds they don’t really feel satiated, and eat more and more and more until the Mayor of New York has to outlaw it or something…

When researchers fed little butterfly pupae (because cute! Or because science, I don’t know) plants that had been grown at a higher temperature, even with increased chomping on the leaves, the pupae’s growth was stunted. This suggests that they were trying to eat more to compensate for the lack of nutrients in the leaves, and failed to get big and fat because these leaves were just of poor quality.

So this could be good news for people who worry about pests, because the plants of the future might not be as nutrient rich, which could stunt pest growth – hurray!  But at the same time, those pests could tell that the food they were eating was no good, so they just ate more – boo!  Then again this is just one factor: temperature.  We all know that climate change includes lots of things that could impact plants including changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as rain and snow patterns.  These are all things that might interact with temperature to influence both plants and the little pests that love them.

Will these changes create a new generation of picky pests?  If so, they can’t be any worse than the picky people of San Francisco, myself included.  If they want to move to the Bay area to join us snobby consumers, I think they’d fit in just fine.

Further Reading:

Increased temperature reduces herbivore host-plant quality

It’s the Little Things with Climate Change

Photo Credit: Broo_am (Andy B) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Broo_am (Andy B) via Compfight cc

A dark shadow has fallen over the city of Berkeley.  The air has grown cold. The sun is blocked by clouds.  The trees have turned gray and are dropping dull, broken leaves.  It is fall.  Unlike the dazzling fall that hits many other parts of the country, with bold reds and fiery yellows, fall in Berkeley is like having a thick icy blanket dropped over an otherwise vivid city.

People start their hibernation. They begin to walk like zombies, sleepily heading to work each morning, wandering aimlessly through the day and wandering home at night.  They’re hardly even smoking pot anymore.  What is the point when the weather can have the same dulling effect?

Meanwhile, their leaky, poorly insulated homes turn to frozen chambers while they sleep. Though the temperature rarely hits the freezing mark, the lack of insulation makes things feel even colder as the chilled night air leaks in through every crevice. Any attempt at heat is immediately lost.  Mice don’t even bother nesting in the walls. An underground bunker would be more insulated.

This is not California, you think.  This is hell.  A couple degrees makes a huge difference.  A few degrees can be the difference between life and death.

From reading my blog, you’ve learned that some invasive species just love temperature changes.  A few degrees allows them to hop in and make a mess of a new area.   Meanwhile some other animals are going to be displaced as the seas rise from a warming ocean.

But something I haven’t talked about yet, in relation to temperature, which is possibly the most straightforward and obvious part, is range expansion up mountainsides in response to climate change.  And this isn’t something that is going to happen in some distant future; this is something that has already happened. It’s been going on for 150 years.

Bad news people, the climate has changed.

Take the Alps. Maybe you picture milk-loving maids making cheeseskiing and the hills being alive with some sort of musical sound…or something.  But you’ve also got these fabulous icy mountaintops that are just not amenable to plant life. Unless they get warmer, in which case they are amenable.  And that’s just what happened.

On one mountaintop in Southeastern Switzerland, researchers found that an increase of just 1.6 degrees celsius since the mid-1800s has allowed the number and variety of plants (aka species richness) to expand. The plants were previously “temperature limited,” but since the temperature has increased, they can expand into new territories.  Seems obvious right?

But haven’t other things happened since the 1800’s? Things like MTV, and the Charleston, and the fall of communism and, well, mountaineering has gotten totally popular and also it turns out that lynx are making a comeback, and tantric sex is having a revival…  So you know, a lot of things have changed since 1850. How could we say it was just temperature causing this change?

Really, mountaineering and lynx are totally relevant questions to be asking. Large mammals, like lynx and mountain men, travel around the mountainside and accidentally spread seeds along with them.  So couldn’t the increase in plant numbers and variety just be because big hunky mammals are spreading seeds everywhere as they wander the hillside?

Well, according to the researchers, most of the shift in plants on this particular mountain don’t appear to coincide with the periods when lynx or mountain-climbers first appeared.  Rather, the changes in plant population coincide with changes in temperature. Your alternative hypotheses were good, they’re just not what appears to have been going on here.

So, a few degrees temperature does make a difference for plants and animals globally.  Here in Berkeley, I’m coming to terms with what a few degrees in any one direction could mean.  I’m afraid next week we might get as low as 60 degrees. Brrr!  I just don’t think I was built for this climate.

Further Reading:

The oldest monitoring site of the Alps revisited: accelerated increase in plant species richness on Piz Linard summit since 1835.

Evicted by Climate Change in San Francisco


Photo Credit: nipplerings72 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: nipplerings72 via Compfight cc

The Bay Area is a hard place to live. Ocean fog makes the summers notoriously frigid, you may be attacked by rogue circus acrobats at any moment, and for some reason there is just poop everywhere. Everywhere.

To make matters worse, housing costs have sky-rocketed to the point where mega-wealthy renters paying $10,000/month are being evicted to make room for the uber-wealthy, who are happy to pay twice or three times that. The city has turned from the site of the Summer of Love into a dystopia where there’s no middle-class, or upper-middle class, or even rich people. There’s the 0.01% and there’s everyone else, and it’s making people a little irate.

While the urban landscape is changing in response to the economic climate (it’s hot!), the ocean landscape right off the coast in SF Bay will be changing soon too, because of climate change.

This is especially problematic for the rare and endangered species that have already had to contend with human encroachment into their habitats. Often these encroachments require people to do something called “assisted colonization” where they actually move the plants, with the hopes that they will happily colonize new protected areas. But just like people being forced out of their homes by a changing economy, plants don’t always move willfully and they don’t always happily thrive after having been displaced. Basically, plants can be picky, like people can be picky: we want to live where we want to live.

Sea level rise from climate change adds a whole new layer to the challenge of protecting rare and endangered plants. If the sea level rises into unique coastal habitats, making them more like open-ocean, where will those coastal plants go? Can they move further inland, where new marshes will presumably develop? Is there even room for them to do so, or has human development reduced their ability to disperse?

Take for example the rare hemi-parasite (meaning it gets some of its nutrition from parasitism and some on its own gumption – think mistletoe) Chloropyron molle A. Heller subsp. Molle aka the rare plant called “soft bird’s beak”. This endangered plant lives in the salt marshes just north of the SF Bay. It’s a big fan of open areas, but is a little picky about sprouting, making it highly variable in numbers from year to year. Due to human encroachment (development, dyking and changing the hydrological regime, yeah we do that too) its habitat has been reduced by 50%. It’s also getting crowded out by invasive species and, oh yeah, apparently it’s popular with the feral pigs.

So, it’s awesome to be a rare plant!

With the prospect of sea level rise, there’s a whole new issue at hand. A key to any plant’s success is its ability to disperse, i.e. have its seeds move to new areas. And the “soft bird’s beak” plant doesn’t have a lot of dispersal options, because of the human encroachment and changing of hydrological regimes… and oh yeah, there are plants that already live there! It’s kind of like having to move to the East Bay for the cheap rents – there are already people living there and maybe they don’t want you crowding them out with your fancy rare plant vibe.

So what’s the answer? It gets really tricky; you could advocate for a “managed retreat”, demanding that people manage all components of an uphill ecosystem (from tidal flows to plant establishment) to create a new home for these rare plants. You could throw up your arms and say that these plants weren’t really long for this world. Or you could take some action now to reduce the risk of sea level rise in the future, nullifying the arguments and years it would take to legislate this sort of action.

My vote goes towards trying to act now to make sure the sea level doesn’t rise to keep these rare plants where they are. But in San Francisco keeping residents in their native habitats isn’t the most popular sentiment.  It turns out that my opinions on this topic might make me the rare plant here. Think I’ll survive?

Further Reading:

(1) Sea change under climate change: case studies in rare plant conservation from the dynamic San Francisco Estuary

Not So Illin’: Climate change and viruses

Photo Credit: origamiwolf via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: origamiwolf via Compfight cc

I am sick and it is my fault. In my line of work, with constant travel, shaking hands, kissing babies, chatting with folks from around the world, the risk of falling ill is quite high. I do my best to keep healthy, wash my hands obsessively, take zinc and guzzle orange juice; anything that could potentially keep me from getting the next stint of bronchitis is worth my time. But then, of course, I go and do something completely bold and highly foolish, which lands me with a deep cough and raging migraine.

Is it staying out all night, dancing wildly at a beach rave? Or perhaps burning the midnight oil coming up with clever new blogs you my lovely readers. Alas, no, neither of these. Rather what made me ill this time away was going for a swim. In the San Francisco Bay. Right after a rain storm.

Now for those of you who regularly swim in the frigid waters off a major city (e.g. the Boston Harbor or NY’s Hudson River), you are probably already immune to the infections that can be caused by a mouthful of sea water filled with Band-Aids, soda caps and other items of ill-repute that are not appropriate for a public blog. But alas, I already have a weakened immune system from the traveling and baby-kissing etc. So one mouthful was enough to land me shivering under the sheets for a couple days. Also it was cold. I don’t care what all you Escape from Alcatraz swimmers say, that water is icy.

But this is really me just being dramatic, because it’s unlikely that a mouthful of sea water, even after an extreme rain storm that washed all the condoms and hypodermic needles from the city into the Bay, could render me quite so ill. It was probably happenstance. But it does make you wonder: what do we know about viruses that live in the ocean? Do viruses even live in the ocean?
Turns out they do, they are actually the most numerous “life-form” in marine systems, and we know a bit about them.

To talk about marine viruses though we need to start with some virus basics. Like, for example, how you could argue (and people do) that viruses are not alive. They can’t replicate on their own and all they really do is wander around like zombies trying to infect and replicate, infect and replicate, infect and replicate. Very zombie-like, as far as I’m concerned.

So, how do they replicate? This video does a nice job explaining how viruses infect bacteria (yes, viruses even infect bacteria). This is a little different from how viruses infect people (check out this video for an explanation). And even though viruses can cause all sorts of nasty issues for marine animals, most of them actually infect prokaryotes (think bacteria and friends) and microalgae.

You’ll notice in the video above that when viruses are done replicating in the bacterial cell, they burst out! This kills the bacteria, d’uh, creating all these yummy nutrients available for microorganisms to nibble on. So not all is lost: viruses leave behind delicious bacterial corpses to devour.

Since viruses are dependent on their hosts for replication, anything that will impact the host will impact the viruses. If growth rates increase in prokaryotes due to temperature increases, this could lead to higher rates of virus production. If there is higher virus production, well then there could be more infections and so more bacterial corpses, which means more food for other organisms, so suddenly we are impacting the food web, the microbial marine community and something scientists call the biogeochemical cycle. This is basically what you might have heard referred to as the carbon cycle, or the nitrogen cycle, or the phosphorous cycle. Each of these things could be impacted by a major viral outbreak that offed a bunch of bacteria.

This is only the tip of the iceberg though when it comes to climate change impacts on marine viruses, and it seems there is ample more to find out. Could a change in temperature affect how viruses engage with bacteria (i.e. hide out in them vs. replicating and bursting forth immediately)? Could it impact viral decay in the water? Could changes in ocean saltiness (also called salinity levels) due to melting ice and snow, change the viral and bacterial dynamics? Could this lead to freshwater viruses invading ocean systems? Do you see now why I have a raging migraine?

Maybe it wasn’t the dip into the murky waters of the SF Bay that caused me to feel ill. Maybe it was just trying to unravel the wildly interesting, but still not well understood effects of climate change on marine viruses.


Further Reading:

Marine viruses and global climate change.

Drunk with Science: Climate change and wine


Berkeley is a great place to get drunk. Nowhere else in the world will you find yourself at a Santa Maria BBQ surrounded with former Black Sabbath roadies, Argentinian media darlings and industrial architects discussing the I Ching at candlelight with the most lovely $5 wine. Sorry Virginia, that country club swill you call cabernet just won’t measure up, and maybe you can find the I Ching somewhere in Greenwich Village, but how many of those conversations would end with mystical guidance to unemployment? Berkeley is the place people go to be unemployed…and chemically enlightened. And honestly it makes for the most delightful and entertaining dinner parties.

Unfortunately, Berkeley is also a terrible place to be hung over. The weather is painfully sunny, every day; not a single cloud in the sky. And people are always cheery, because it’s sunny, every day. Which you would think would be fun, until you’re hung over and it is not fun. It is not fun at all.

An overabundance of the best quality wine at “low, low prices” makes every dinner party an unsobering event. It’s not uncommon to meet people on the street who are so pickled they no longer need to drink. Their skin is made of Cabernet, their eyes flooded by Pinot Grigio, they get pulled over while sober because their lifestyle has made them impaired. But this is the conflicted relationship Californians have with wine: delightful as it slowly turns your skin a deep shade of purple, making your blood tannic and your lifestyle delusional.

When I first started on this blog, I wrote a piece about climate change making Napa valley and associated snooty locales an ideal place for wine-grape growing, as a shift in climate also correlated with the boom in the fancy wine industry. And who am I to deny that the wine is top notch here? It just is.

This finding was the lighter side of more controversial research that has been bouncing around for quite some time, which suggests that with a changing climate, some areas known for their charming varieties will become less hospitable to grapes. In fact a recent analysis found that current major wine producing areas globally are going to become less suitable, forcing grape farmers to either use more water or move their vineyards to cooler upslope areas, thereby potentially encroaching into new areas (1). A wine tragedy turns into a conservation disaster.

But, no wine-lover would take such news sitting down, and of course, they didn’t. The response was swift! Yes, yes of course if vineyards expand into new areas this could have negative ecosystem impacts and sure water use is totally a big deal, but how dare you even suggest that the wine-producing areas worldwide will dramatically decrease by 2050 (2). Bite. Your. Tongue. Heathen.

The real issue came down to how to best plot out a model for global shifts in grape production—which parameters to use, how to make comparisons and connections, and whether a crop known and loved for its regional cultivation (the fresh coastal notes vs. the bold inland flavors) can be used as a model crop for this question: how will global shifts in agricultural management due to to climate change impact conservation? And if you can answer said question, can you do it without infuriating the global wine market?

Photo Credit: rpeschetz via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: rpeschetz via Compfight cc

The original authors fought back at the wine enthusiasts (3). “You fools!” They said (in science lingo that sounds far more intelligent), “We don’t care about wine, we care about conservation! The vineyards will no doubt stay where they are regionally, they will just require more water and potentially encroach into new areas. That is what we care about: conservation! Not your pesky Merlots!”

To which the wine enthusiasts no doubt scoffed is disgust, “ugh, Merlot? Really? You don’t know us at all.”

And therein lies the controversy, though the argument appears to be based in the best way to model climate change impacts on agriculture, the undertone is one of concerns for a pricey commodity vs. conservation. Which should we be more worried about?

That sounds like a great question for my next dinner party. While we are at it we can address all the drink controversies: wine and conservation, diet soda and obesity, the oppression of kombucha mothers…this is Berkeley after all. We take our drinking seriously.

Further Reading:
(1) Climate change, wine, and conservation
(2) Why climate change will not dramatically decrease viticultural suitability in main wine-producing areas by 2050
(3) Reply to van Leeuwen et al.: Planning for agricultural adaptation to climate change and its consequences for conservation

Climate change and ‘shrooms

Working in climate change you hear a lot of myths surrounding the science; it’s a scientific conspiracy, the models are faulty, scientists are in disagreement, there is too much controversy. This last point is particularly annoying, because it has been long established that this is simply not true. But it’s also irritating, because it ignores some of the more interesting scientific questions regarding climate change. Let’s face it, it’s just not exciting to ask the question of whether climate change is happening or caused by people….that has major snooze-factor in my book. The really cool and interesting scientific questions regarding climate change now have super nerd factor, they are for real dork-culture…they are about mushrooms.

You’ve heard me blog about mushrooms quite a bit in the past. No, it’s not because I’m a stoner living in the east bay, though that is a good guess. It’s actually because they are really interesting, often elusive and incredibly important to ecosystems – not just because some people like to eat them, but because they are big decomposers in many natural systems, freeing up nutrients to plants we like to eat and shade ourselves with, and breaking down trees and animals we don’t want to deal with. They also push forward the carbon cycle by breaking down nutrients in the soil and decomposing woody debris…but that is just basic high school science there.

From reading my blog, you’ve learned that there is some controversy in the fancy world of truffles as to whether climate change has increased their prevalence or if we are just more aware of them now (because, like wow, foodies are crazy!) You also learned more recently that climate change has increased the allergenicity of one type of fungus which makes us sneezy and can actually kill people who are immunocompromised. But, it turns out the mushroom controversy continues as people take a closer look at these funky decomposers….

So you probably already know that the majority of mushrooms spend most of their lives underground or in downed logs or dead trees and sometimes in rotting corpses…am I grossing you out yet? The parts that we are most familiar with are the fruiting bodies, which are the things most people call mushrooms, they are the part that pops out of the ground; the place that Smurfs call home.

Photo Credit: Vicki & Chuck Rogers via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Vicki & Chuck Rogers via Compfight cc

Mushrooms are a particularly interesting organism to look at because they are really weird; they’re not plants, they’re not animals, and since they grow mostly underground they are rather elusive. Also people find them gross…so you know, not something everyone is running out to study. But some people are fans, and others are super nerds and just categorize and count everything, and that is fortunate because some of those datasets from super-nerds can be used now by uber-nerds to figure out if climate change is impacting mushrooms.

It is actually one of these data sets I’m going to be talking about today: one from Switzerland where it turns out that since the mid-1970’s there has been a massive increase in those fruiting bodies I was talking about, and a higher species richness (that means the number of different species in a given area). In addition, the fruiting has come later in the season since the 70’s. And who is to blame? It seems that climate is in control of this one. Are you surprised?

It actually gets more complex than that, because among fungi there are different functional groups: mycorrhizal (symbiotic fungi that live in the roots of plants and trade mineral nutrients and water in exchange for sugar) and saprotrophic (those are the rotters you see on dead trees). Given that these two types of fungi have differing lifestyles, would it surprise you to hear that different aspects of climate impact their livelihoods?

The saprotrophs (decomposers) are more dependent on temperature and moisture levels to control their decomposition processes, which is how they get their nutrients. Meanwhile the mycorrhizals (plant-lovers) are more dependent on their host plants for sugars, so it seems that anything climatic that impacts the host, will impact the ‘lover.

What does access to sugar have to do with fruiting bodies? Well, have you ever tried to have a baby without eating for 9 months? Try it and then let me know what you think about the importance of access to nutrients for reproduction….

So what does this have to do with climate change? Well lots more than what I can put in a simple 900 word blog, but here are a couple questions that you should be asking…As climate changes, how will it influence mushroom abundance and reproduction? Will more fruiting bodies lead to more fungi overall in the landscape? Will more fungi lead to a faster decomposition of carbon trapped in debris on the forest floor and in the soil? If that carbon is broken down faster will that result in more carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere than previously predicted? Will this greater amount of carbon dioxide add to the enhanced greenhouse effect, warming the planet further? Will an even warmer planet lead to a better environment for fungi thereby causing more fungi breaking down carbon faster? Is this something we call a positive feedback loop? Did you just learn science from a 900 word blog?

It turns out that there are many more research questions to ask, just about mushrooms alone, which makes them one of the coolest and interesting organisms to study right now in relation to climate change. And you thought you were slacking off from work by reading a blog about ‘shrooms. Sucker.

Further Reading
Unraveling environmental drivers of a recent increase in Swiss fungi fruiting

Fear and Loathing of Climate Change

Photo by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr
Photo by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr

Now that summer has come to a close and everyone is returning to their homes with tales of downing oyster shots and hiking the continental divide, I think it’s appropriate for me to share how I spent my summer vacation. I wasn’t jet skiing in Miami or visiting the coffee houses of northern Europe. I was doing what every good scientist should do is this day and age—climate change tourism. I was visiting a place that won’t be around 100 years from now. And I’ll be honest with you, it was awesome.

Where was this incredible vacation-land? The beaches of North Carolina, of course. North Carolina is rather notorious now for passing legislation that doesn’t allow for the consideration of sea level rise for ocean-side management. Which leads to oodles of lovely beach-front property built high on stilts, for seemingly mysterious reasons…totally unrelated to the ocean….

But sea level was really the least of my worries, as it turns out we decided to stay in the great region of Cape Fear, right next to a Pet Cemetery, spending our days swimming with sharks (we later found out). We might as well have been at a summer camp where a camper had mysteriously disappeared and wandered off by ourselves shouting “I’ll be right back!!

Of all these fears — hockey masked murderers, zombified cats, ex-cons with an ax to grind – it never occurred to us what we really should have been fearing…sponges. That’s right, ocean sponges.

Now I’m going to blow your mind for a minute here…you know that sponge you use to wash your dishes? Well that synthetic kitchen-helper is based on a real-life organism called…the sponge.

More shocking still, sponges are not plants, as you might think. They are animals. Really, squishy, multi-cellular animals, that can even reproduce….sexually. Weirder still, some of the more unusual varieties are carnivorous—they eat other sea creatures, catching them in their threads and slowly digesting them in some creepy horror movie fashion. Worst of all, those seemingly docile sponges aren’t really docile at all. They’re actually quite the industrialists, destructively excavating into coral reefs — like gophers on a golf course.

But not all sponges are this freaky. Some are quite mellow, getting nutrients by pumping water through their bodies, while others set up delightful symbiotic relationships with little photosynthesizing organisms called dinoflagellates (much like coral do).

The sponges I am going to write about today, Cliona orientalis, fall mid-way into what I would call the sponge creep factor. These animals play host to the photosynthesizing dinoflagellates I mentioned earlier, so you would think they would play well with others, but unfortunately they are also major excavators. Yes, these seemingly immobile animals are little under-sea construction workers drilling into corals and making a bit of a mess.

This ordinarily wouldn’t be such a bit deal. Sponges drill, corals grow back, sponges get eaten by something…corals rejoice. All part of the natural ocean ecosystem. But, of course, because the world is a terrifying place, under “business as usual scenarios” (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s term for “you people are so flippin’ lazy, you couldn’t be bothered to reduce your CO2 emissions over the next 100 years”), these excavating sponges grow faster, increasing their bioerosion rates. Yay, for the sponges, bad for the coral.

Now you may be thinking that this is all underwater drama, and as a land creature all you could possibly care about is the opportunity for more potential sponges to buff your lovely little toes with. But of course you must know that coral reefs are important ecosystems for sea animals, including the fish that you and/or your cat probably enjoy, sharks that are always hunting you from shore as you lie on the beach, and well…everyone really. Reefs are important.

So though I started my vacation being full of conventional fears—not having a large enough boat, a zombified version of my cat, Robert Deniro—what I really should have been more afraid of was what was right in front my face the whole time, climate change.

Further Reading:
Sponge biomass and bioerosion rates increase under ocean warming and acidification