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.

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