I am not writing about climate change to raise awareness about it. I am not writing about climate change to convince naysayers that it is real and happening. In my opinion, that is an already dead horse that will likely never stop being beaten. Plus, there are textbooks that can do a much better job of explaining the science than I can. What I want us to appreciate is what climate change, whether we trust its validity or not, may look like for us comfortable, privileged folk living in suburbia. Being an environmental biologist with a fairly strong understanding of climate and environmental change, I would be remiss if I did not at least try.
The sound of birds singing is something many of us appreciate. There is a tranquility about birds calling, singing, and dancing in the springtime that comforts the soul and brings the promise of new life. It signals a world waking up from its winter slumber with vitality in its breath. It is something our race has likely always enjoyed. But there is a very sinister threat facing this seasonal rush. The birds have stopped coming.
In 2015, I assisted a team of bird conservationists on their annual surveys and in that year, we observed nearly a 90% decline in returning migrants from the previous year. I hoped it was a one-off. But the team informed me that the numbers had been steadily declining for some time. What was going on? Well, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is arriving earlier (Moller et al. 2008). Snow is melting faster, plants are blooming sooner, and insects are emerging and reproducing earlier than normal (Moller et al. 2008). Sadly, some of our migratory birds that leave in the fall don’t know to change their migratory timing to come home sooner. They miss out on the valuable (and necessary) spring bounty of insects that provide the protein they need to nourish their chicks (Moller et al. 2008). The birds miss the feast and their chicks starve. Projected over many years, and the birds stop calling, and eventually stop coming. This is not an anecdote. Ask your grandparents. Many of them can recall the days of skies blacking out from the flocking birds, and those days are but a memory to us now.
It is not just birds that are disappearing. Sadly, another beacon of springtime, our frogs, are also struggling to cope with these changes. Earlier springs have been having a devastating impact on amphibians, especially the ones that rely on small, temporary wetlands for their lifecycle (Abney et al. 2019). Early springs and warmer waters mean that amphibians can lay their eggs earlier in the year and perhaps give their offspring a longer active season to grow and mature before winter hibernation. So why isn’t this beneficial? Well, the issue is not earlier egg deposition itself. It is the threat of freezing temperatures occurring after the eggs are deposited which really threatens them. See, many amphibian species are accustomed to stable climates, and would only lay their eggs when they felt the threat of frost and ice was behind them. However, if they are breeding and laying earlier in the year, if a “late” frost does occur, their eggs are destroyed because many species have not yet evolved to survive freezing at this vulnerable life stage (Abney et al. 2019). Unfortunately, late season freeze events are not uncommon when our spring is advancing, and they can have massive consequences on short-lived amphibian species.
Another pressure being observed is that of droughts. Earlier springs with warmer temperatures and less precipitation cause wetlands that typically dry up in August to desiccate in May or June — faster than tadpoles can develop, sprout legs, and escape the perils of their drying nursery. Some species have proven capable of adapting to warmer waters and shorter hydroperiods, but when the change is too drastic, the life cycle of the frogs can be outpaced. That is when we observe dramatic crashes in our local amphibian populations. Ask your grandparents. They will tell you of the spring nights when the calling of frogs was deafening. Now our nights are quiet. The call of the frogs is fading.
What about rabbits? The earlier springtime could mean the bounty of fresh shoots and roots occurring earlier, giving rabbits and their offspring a longer season of feasting before the winter famine. So why aren’t we overrun by rabbits? What you may not know is that in western North America there are several species of wild rabbits that are disappearing, with many populations already extirpated. What is happening? Again, the problem isn’t necessarily the earlier onset of spring. It is the shortness and mildness of the winter which is causing less and less snow accumulation.
For winter-adapted species like the snowshoe hare or white-tailed jack rabbit, the loss of reliable snow cover is disastrous (Sultaire et al. 2016). These species, like several other wild rabbits in the Northern Hemisphere, turn completely white in the winter. The timing of this colour change matches the winter season when the ground is typically covered in snow, and the white rabbits are virtually undetectable against the whiteness of their habitat. That is their protection. However, if snow is replaced with more rain, and snow cover lasts only 2–3 months as opposed to 4–5 months, then what? Well, quite frankly, white rabbits lose their ability to camouflage. Before their fur can change colour they become conspicuous, easy targets for many land and air-based predators. Areas that no longer receive reliable snowfall are now off limits to them, so the rabbits are suffering not only from range contractions and habitat loss, but also increased predation pressure (Sultaire et al. 2016). Without the long, snowy winters they are used to, the rabbits are doomed.
If the birds that no longer come, or the frogs that no longer call, or the rabbits that no longer run in our fields are not enough to scare us — what about the direct impacts to us? Well, milder winters and infrequent precipitation are shrinking the ski season and causing ski resorts to close the world over. So, climate change looks like ski resorts closing.
The earlier onset of spring and unusually high winter temperatures contribute to accelerated snow melt and runoff from the mountains. This in turn causes flooding at lower elevations (like what we observed in Calgary, Alberta in 2013). So, climate change looks like flooding cities.
The floods, droughts, and storms which are becoming all too common are also disastrous for our agricultural production; limiting distribution potential and skyrocketing production costs. As a result, climate change looks like more expensive food. It looks like more expensive wine. It looks like more expensive water.
Even from the comfort and safety of our homes, we notice these things. We are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.
Whether we choose to recognize that the climate is changing or not, we must accept that change is happening. There are events taking place on our precious Earth today which have no precedence in our recorded history. Does it mean they have not taken place before? No. But that is not the point. Nor is the cause of the changes the point. The point is that we are losing things that are precious, and arguably priceless, to us. We are losing memories. We are losing livelihoods. Let’s stop associating climate change with global warming because a changing climate is so much bigger than just warming temperatures. In fact, global warming is a misnomer because to those of us who treat this term literally, we imagine a consistent warming all around the world which is frankly not true. There is disproportionate warming happening at different locations around the globe, and some areas are experiencing little to no warming at all. But our world IS suffering from some very real growing pains. Nature is providing all her warnings. It is simply up to us to acknowledge them.
Climate change looks different no matter where we look. It is time to get over that. It is time to be sad about the species which have gone. It is time to mourn the memories we have lost. It is time to stop pretending that we are somehow exempt from the repercussions of a changing climate. Ignoring a fever will not make one any less sick. If anything, it only prolongs the suffering, inhibits recovery, and prevents progress. To quote my favourite theologian (C.S. Lewis), it is like cutting off the branch we are sitting on.
Abney, C., et al. 2019. Early spring and early vanishing wetlands as harbingers of the future? The climate change trap for ephemeral pond-breeding frogs. Northwest Science. 93:52–65
Moller, A.P., D. Rubolini, and E. Lehikoinen. 2008. Populations of migratory bird species that did not show a phenological response to climate change are declining. PNAS. 42:16195–16200
Sultaire, S.M., et al. 2016. Climate change surpasses land-use change in the contracting range boundary of a winter-adapted mammal. Proc. R. Soc B. 283:20153104