On the Move to Outrun Climate Change

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By Blaine Harden and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 26, 2006

SEATTLE -- As the Bush administration debates much of the world about what to do about global warming, butterflies and ski-lift operators, polar bears and hydroelectric planners are on the move.

In their separate ways, wild creatures, business executives and regional planners are responding to climate changes that are rapidly recalibrating their chances for survival, for profit and for effective delivery of public services.

Butterflies are voting with their wings, abandoning southern Europe and flying north to the more amenable climes of Finland. Ski-lift operators in the West are lobbying for leases on federal land higher up in the Rockies, trying to outclimb snowlines that creep steadily upward.

Polar bears along Hudson Bay are losing weight and declining in number as the ice shelf melts and their feeding season shrinks. Power planners in the Pacific Northwest, which gets three-quarters of its electricity from hydroelectric dams, are meeting in brainstorming sessions and making contingency plans for early snow melts, increased wintertime rainfall, lower summertime river flows and electricity shortfalls during hotter, drier summers.

With the issue of a warming planet shifting rapidly from scientific projection to on-the-ground reality, animals and plants are being compelled, along with businesses and bureaucracies, to take action aimed at self-preservation. They are doing so even as the Bush administration eschews regulations, laws or international treaties that would require limits on carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists say are the main cause of global warming.

A newly published synthesis of 866 peer-reviewed studies of the effect of climate change on wild plants and animals has found what its author, Camille Parmesan, an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, describes as a "clear, globally coherent conclusion."

Flora and fauna are migrating north or climbing to higher ground if they can, said Parmesan, whose paper appears in the December issue of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. If they cannot move, she said, their numbers are often declining, their health is getting worse, and some are disappearing altogether.

"Wild species don't care who is in the White House," Parmesan said. "It is very obvious they are desperately trying to move to respond to the changing climate. Some are succeeding. But for the ones that are already at the mountaintop or at the poles, there is no place for them to go. They are the ones that are going extinct."

Among the most affected species, Parmesan said, are highland amphibians in the tropics. She said more than two-thirds of 110 species of harlequin frogs, which occupy mountain cloud forests in Central America, have become extinct in the past 35 years.

Meanwhile, many pest species -- including roaches, fleas, ticks and tree-killing beetles -- are surviving warming winters in increasing numbers. "We are seeing throughout the Northern Hemisphere that pests are able to have more generations per year, which allows them to increase their numbers without being killed off by cold winter temperatures," said Parmesan.

Federal scientists say that the first six months of this year were the warmest on record in the United States and that the five warmest years over the past century have occurred since 1998. In her review of studies measuring the impact of climate change on wild plants and animals, Parmesan said this "sudden increase" in temperatures appears to have been a tipping point, triggering substantial responses from a broad range of species.

"The magnitude of impacts is so overwhelming that many biologists are now calling this the single most important problem they need to work on," said Parmesan. "You can save all the habitat you want, but if it is not any good climatically, what is the point?"


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