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On the Move to Outrun Climate Change
Self-Preservation Forcing Wild Species, Businesses, Planning Officials to Act

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?"

Though President Bush has said that human activity has contributed to climate change, he has consistently rejected the idea of imposing mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions.

In an interview shortly after this month's congressional elections, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the country would be better off setting a voluntary goal -- such as increasing the use of renewable fuels -- than dictating industrial greenhouse-gas emission levels.

"Setting a reasonably ambitious target and then exceeding it is a good way to make reasonable progress," Connaughton said.

The Bush administration has outlined a strategic plan that calls for developing technology that would reduce carbon dioxide pollution. It now spends $3 billion a year on energy research and development. But when adjusted for inflation, this money is a fraction of what the federal government spent in the past. Researchers such as Reuel Shinnar and Francesco Citro, two chemical engineers at the Clean Fuels Institute at the City College of New York, estimate the country would have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to make the transition to a carbon-free society.

From the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, the effects of global warming -- along with the responses of animals, people, businesses and bureaucracies -- are being woven into the fabric of everyday life.

On Cape Sable, on the far southwestern edge of Florida, boaters, sportsmen and scientists have watched as a rising sea level has transformed a freshwater marsh into a portion of the sea.

Where there had been saw grass, the distinctive vegetation of the Everglades, there are now mangrove trees, which thrive in salt water and open water. Redfish inhabit areas that once had been wetland. The endangered bird named after the area, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, has fled northward.

Using historic photos and tidal gauge records, University of Miami professor Harold Wanless, chairman of the geology department, has studied the changes. Between the sinking of the land and the rise of the seas since the 1930s, the relative water level has risen nine inches, he said.

"Freshwater marshes on Cape Sable are now evolving into more or less open marine waters," he said. "We're not talking about global warming as something that will happen in the future. Its happening right now. All the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put Cape Sable together again."

In the high country of western Montana, ski resort manager Tom Maclay is trying to outrun climate change by persuading the U.S. Forest Service to lease 12,000 acres across Carlton Ridge and Lolo Peak. The land, which lies above property he owns, would allow his resort to reach a top elevation of 9,100 feet.

Maclay is well aware how climate change is transforming his business and how nearby resorts have suffered from a lack of snow in recent years. At nearby Glacier National Park, the U.S. Geological Survey quantifies the change, noting that there has been a 73 percent decline since 1850 in the area of the park covered by glaciers. Many smaller glaciers are now gone, it says, and larger ones have shrunk by about two-thirds.

Maclay and his resort's chief executive, Jim Gill, are negotiating with snowmaking manufacturers who are asking for tens of millions of dollars for their services.

"Now with the snowline creeping up the hill, it's tougher and tougher for the areas that are struggling at the margins to keep their base areas full of snow," Gill said. "If you don't have a good snowmaking operation, you're not going to be able to compete."

In the Pacific Northwest, which depends far more on hydroelectricity than any region of the country, research findings on global warming from the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group have prompted utilities, federal agencies and regional planning groups to convene brainstorming sessions in the past year.

They are looking at possible ways of mitigating power shortages as the summer flows of the region's rivers decline -- a result of less snow in the mountains and early melt.

For decades, the Pacific Northwest has had a surplus of power to send south to California during hot summer months. But if Northwest rivers run low as summers get hotter, the region could end up competing with California for power, said John Fazio, a senior power systems analyst for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a regional planning group.

"More and more, global warming is becoming a serious part of the planning process," said Fazio.

Eilperin reported from Missoula, Mont. Staff writer Peter Whoriskey in Miami contributed to this report.

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