9 July 2017 — FAIR
Janine Jackson interviewed Dan Zukowski about climate disruption for the June 30, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Polar bears used as a symbol of a climate disruption by the Boston Globe (5/31/17).
Janine Jackson: Enough with the stranded polar bears! A recent letter writer to the Boston Globe took issue with the use of the iconic image of a polar bear stranded on floating ice to accompany a story on climate change. Besides being lazy, said Frederick Hewett of Cambridge, the image just sends an inaccurate message about climate disruption, which is happening everywhere—not just in the faraway Arctic—and the effects of which take myriad forms.
Getting reporters to pay attention to all of the stories of climate change is an urgent and ongoing effort. Our next guest is a contributor to that work. Dan Zukowski is an environmental writer. His work appears in EnviroNews as well as other outlets. He joins us now by phone from Maine. Welcome to CounterSpin, Dan Zukowski.
Dan Zukowski: Thank you, Janine. I’m happy to be here.
JJ: For a recent article, you pulled together a number of studies that had to do with species’ response to climate disruption, and polar bears are in there, but it’s about a great deal else as well. I guess I would ask you to start with this work, out of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, about songbirds. What are they finding there?
Dan Zukowski: “Climate change represents the first time in human history that we’ve had, as all of humanity, one problem that we need to face together, because it affects everyone on Earth.”
DZ: Yeah, that was a really interesting study. They looked at 48 species of songbirds, and these are birds that migrate primarily from Central and South America up to places in North America, in the US and Canada, for their summer migration, spring and summer. And because of the changes in climate patterns—and those changes are somewhat different in different parts of North America; they can be different from the west to the east—it’s kind of throwing these birds off as to when they should leave their winter homes in Central and South America, and when they should arrive here in their summer homes in North America.
They found, for example, that in Vermont, winter has been shortening by four days per decade for the last several decades. So the trees are blooming and the grass is coming out, and maybe the birds aren’t even here yet. So it’s an issue: If these birds arrive too early, it will be cold and they may not be able to find a place to nest; they may not find a mate, because their mate hasn’t arrived yet. On the other hand, if they arrive too late, it’s the opposite: All the best nesting places may be taken, all the best mates may be taken, and those sorts of things. So there’s a real impact. And it’s kind of funny, because one of the researchers there in that article said you would think that birds who know how to migrate over thousands of miles would be the easiest to adapt.
DZ: But they have hundreds of thousands of generations of cues, such as the length of daylight, that haven’t changed, OK? And they use those things to determine when to leave and when to arrive, and when they get to their summer homes, things are not what they expect. These birds may adapt over years and generations going forward—as, for example, the earlier birds will survive better than the birds who arrive later. But that’s sort of the workings of evolution that happen much more slowly.
JJ: Right. Well, the work on birds is just a piece of this article, because it’s about various species’ response to climate destabilization. And folks might think it’s interesting that it includes trees, but trees are moving—if you will—too, and that also has implications. What’s the research saying there?
DZ: Yeah, trees are moving. Of course, it’s not an individual tree that gets up and walks, but it’s where certain concentrations of trees—they call it the “center of abundance” for a particular tree species, whether it’s the oaks or certain forms of conifers and so forth. What they’re finding is that trees are basically moving north and west. They’re moving a bit more, in the study that was done, to the west, about 50 feet per decade west and about 36 feet per decade north. And these are due to both precipitation changes and temperature changes.
Other researchers have also seen trees moving further up mountains. This has been seen in Colorado and California and other places, where, as the global temperatures warm, tree species that couldn’t survive previously at higher elevations now can. The implications of this is that it changes the entire ecosystem, and it changes the food supply for the animals, whether it be birds or other terrestrial animals, that depend on this vegetation to survive.
DZ: It’s funny that you started off with the polar bear issue. Well, the polar bears, of course, have no place further to go; there is no more north for them. But another piece I’m working on now is looking at how grizzly bears are now being seen in polar bear habitat, where they’ve either never been seen before or they’ve only been seen very rarely.
I’ve been to the Canadian tundra; it’s a very inhospitable place. There’s not a lot growing there. And polar bears don’t care, because they’re not eating vegetation, they’re just waiting to get out and hunt for seals. But grizzly bears, as the vegetation changes and it becomes more something that they can actually eat, well, it’s going to draw them further north.
So we’re seeing some conflicts, we’re even seeing some interbreeding among grizzly bears and polar bears. When you change one thing in the ecosystem, lots of things ripple out from there.
JJ: Absolutely. Well, I can hear some folks thinking, well, so the world is changing. You know, there’ll be different birds in different places, and different trees in different places. And, of course, in your work you point out, well, yeah, and also, you know, mosquitoes being a threat in places where they weren’t before. And obviously the implications are really almost dizzying.
But it’s not just — it seems silly to say it’s not just a nature story, nature is everything, but I mean for reporters who are looking to bring it home, of course these changes are going to have implications for our lives and what we eat, and our jobs as well. So I just ask you to kind of tell folks, you’re up in Maine, what have you learned lately about the impacts on the industry, in terms of the seafood industry, of climate disruption?
American Lobster: no longer found in Southern New England waters (cc photo: Steven G. Johnson/Wikimedia)
DZ: Well, all throughout what is called the Northeast Shelf, off of the northeast part of our continent, so off of New England, basically, where there’s a tremendous amount of commercial fishing—New Bedford, Massachusetts, is the most valuable fishing port in the US—fish species have been moving to colder waters and deeper waters, because the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 percent of the global ocean in the past ten years. That’s a huge change.
So where the lobster industry used to be all throughout New England—down into Connecticut, Rhode Island, Long Island Sound—that southern New England portion of the lobster fishery is now gone; it’s no longer commercially viable. All those lobsters have migrated north. So Maine had a record catch of lobster last year, but in the future, that could move further north from there.
So it is impacting, clearly—there’s 124,000 jobs in fishing, just Americans doing commercial fishing, from Maine down to Virginia, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, that’s responsible for $10 billion in economic activity. And as all of these species are moving in different directions, it changes what those fishermen can catch, how much it costs, because if they’re moving further out or moving into deeper waters, it could cost more just to go out and get those fish. But all these changes do affect jobs and affect people.
When we report climate change issues for the public, it’s hard for people to perhaps grasp, and I’ve literally had people tell me that when they keep reading these headlines about polar bears and climate and all those things, they’re overwhelmed with bad news and they just want to throw up their hands.
DZ: But I think if we understand how these things relate to us individually—the fact that there’s an explosion of Lyme disease because ticks now are in 41 states, they’ve just really become an issue because of shorter winters, longer warm seasons that are favorable to the deer ticks and blackleg ticks. So we’re personally feeling this, but we don’t often hear those stories.
JJ: I wanted actually to draw you out on that, because when I looked for write-ups of the research that you wrote about, I found vanishingly little, although there was some, mostly columns. But I did find stories about people doing things, you know, scientists in Minnesota who are looking for a kind of pine tree that could survive the shifts that are coming to the region.
The reason we want to direct media coverage to these issues is not to make people throw up their hands, of course. It’s to drive action, not inaction. And so I would add to the positive note—although it is a depressing story—I did find people not waiting for a green light from the government, for example, but getting themselves involved in things like research on trees. And I know that you found, in fact, the songbird work even had a lot to do with citizen volunteer research.
DZ: Absolutely. There is a website that anyone can go to called eBird where citizens can enter the birds they see in their backyard, or when they go out on a hike, or if you’re a real birder, then maybe you’re out there all the time. And that information now is so voluminous that it is helping researchers and helping scientists understand where the movement of birds is, and that’s a lot of the data that came into play in some of those studies we referred to earlier.
But there’s a lot of great citizen science projects that are out there that people can get involved in, perhaps with Audubon or with the Sierra Club or with other wildlife organizations. It doesn’t have to be about politics, it doesn’t have to be about protests and things like that, but it can be just helping to do some of the citizen science work that is really enormously important.
You know, climate change represents the first time in human history that we’ve had, as all of humanity, one problem that we need to face together, because it affects everyone on Earth. So we don’t have a precedent for this; we’re figuring it out as we go along. But there’s a lot of good stories out there, and it’s both on a global level with the UN and other organizations, but it’s also right down on the front lines.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with environmental writer Dan Zukowski. You can find his work in EnviroNews and elsewhere, and you can find his work online at DBZphoto.com. Dan Zukowski, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
DZ: Thank you, Janine.
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