The science is clear: temperatures are increasing, weather is getting more erratic, and sea level is rising. The question is: what should we do about it? In the final installment of our Cape Change series, we take a look at Massachusetts’ officials’ attempts to find the right balance between stopping climate change and preparing for it … starting with some lessons from the natural world.
David McGlinchey / Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences
Black-bellied plovers typically spend their winters in the tropics, not Plymouth Harbor. If they can survive the winter, staying put may prove to be an energy-saving adaptation to climate change.
When it comes to climate change, plants and animals face a tough ultimatum: adapt or perish. Trevor Lloyd-Evans has spent the past forty years observing the wildlife – particularly birds – that surround his lab at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. He says it’s obvious the natural world is responding to rising temperatures.
“There really is a change,” says Lloyd-Evans. “There’s a noticeable, measurable change, which is amazing to me. I mean I learned that evolution worked extremely slowly, and it still does. But natural selection can work quite quickly. And we’re seeing recognizable changes just in three or four degrees. Which is an astonishing thing.”
As he walks through the woods on a chilly late December morning, Lloyd-Evans points out some of those changes – here a southern tupelo tree, there a pair of turkey vultures that he says would have been a rarity in mid-winter thirty or forty years ago.
The turkey vulture is one of nearly two hundred eastern bird species whose winter territories have shifted north in the past fifty years, in some cases by hundreds of miles. But Lloyd-Evans says that even more important than where birds spend the winter is where they are come early spring.
“So in the spring they are feeding on a very temperature sensitive prey,” he explains, “which would be insects that are hatching out in correlation with leaves that are coming out and coming out earlier and correlating with temperature.”
Birds who opt not to fly south for the winter are guaranteed to be here when the bugs emerge, but migrating birds need perfect timing to hit that all-important spring bloom. Lloyd-Evans says that birds who time their spring migrations based on temperature cues are arriving back in southern Massachusetts as much as nine days earlier than they did just forty years ago. But long-distance migrants who rely on internal clocks aren’t making the adjustment.
This is the third story in our four-part series Cape Change: A Local Perspective on Global Warming.
The 'hook' or 'fist' of Provincetown is one of the few parts of Cape Cod that is growing.
The tiny village of Woods Hole is a mish-mash of million-dollar homes and renowned scientific institutions perched on the southern tip of Cape Cod. Much of the coast is clad in sea walls and jetties intended to hold the line against the forces of erosion. But they can’t stop the rising sea.
At a recent workshop hosted by Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Greg Berman of Woods Hole Sea Grant showed off a three-dimensional animation of what a popular restaurant perched atop one of those seawalls might look like under various sea level rise scenarios.
“So here we are at normal high tide,” he said, walking attendees through the animation. “You can bump it up to one foot of sea level rise. Three feet sea level rise. And then six feet of sea level rise.”
Sea level around Cape Cod has already risen one foot in the past century, and that rate is increasing as global temperatures rise and melting of the world’s major ice sheets accelerates. Three feet of additional rise by 2100 is now considered a moderate to conservative estimate, and six feet is within the realm of possibility. At that point, the restaurant in the animation would be flooded at high tide. Add storm surge from a major storm, and the computer-generated water levels rise to absurd heights half-way up the first-story windows – a prospect that elicited nervous laughter from workshop attendees.
“So really is it worse getting flooded to here,” asked Berman. “Is that going to matter too much more?”
Lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine have posted record harvests in recent years. But in the waters just south of Cape Cod, the situation is dramatically different. Lobster populations there crashed a decade ago and have not recovered, leaving lobstermen to face the potential closure of their fishery. In the second installment of our Cape Change series, we take a look at one of the most dramatic examples of how climate change is affecting New England’s fisheries.
Bob Usher / Flickr
Rising water temperatures are thought to be responsible for the collapse of lobster populations off the southern coast of New England.
Dick Allen was just a teenager when he dropped out of college to go lobstering with his brother-in-law nearly fifty years ago. They’d leave Westport and steam about 20 miles south to a place called Cox Ledge.
“You’d haul up a trap,” recalls Allen, “and there’d be these big lobsters that you’d have to struggle to get ‘em out of the traps.”
Over the decades, Allen watched those big lobsters disappear. By the late 80’s, he says, they were basically gone.
“It was like if you went into a town and you never saw anybody over 13 years old,” he says. “You’d say well something’s wrong here. And that’s the situation we had created in the lobster population in southern New England.”
Then, around 1998, the number of lobsters with an unsightly bacterial infection known as shell disease skyrocketed, and the population collapsed. Bob Glenn, Massachusetts’ chief lobster biologist, says shell disease is rarely fatal, so it probably didn’t cause the crash. But it does make it hard for lobstermen to sell their catch and, what’s more, it’s a symptom of a population under extreme stress. The question was what was causing the stress.
Scientists predict that Massachusetts could have the climate of the Carolinas by late this century if global warming continues unabated. With temperatures several degrees above average, this winter has brought a taste of what may be to come. And some wonder if that’s really such a bad thing. In the first installment of our four-part series, Cape Change: A Local Perspective on Global Warming, we explore the disparity between the scientific consensus and public opinion on climate change.
Jennifer Junker / WCAI
Blooming daffodils have been spotted around Cape Cod since early February.
Daffodils blooming, kite surfers out on the water, and garden-fresh broccoli at the farmer’s market. It all sounds more like May than February, and it’s gotten a lot of people wondering if this winter is global warming in action.
“What we’ve had this winter is weather, it’s not climate,” says Hector Galbraith, director of Climate Change Initiatives at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. “But what we’ve seen this winter is maybe something like the sort of winter climate we can expect in 20 or 30 years, with less snowfall, milder temperatures, and some people might like that.”
Galbraith says he enjoys the warm weather as much as anyone. And he openly admits that climate change will benefit some people, at last in the short term. But it won’t be all roses – or early daffodils.
“People think of the climate change predictions as being slowly increasing temperature, everybody gets used to it, and adapts to it, and it seems okay,” says Galbraith. “But the major predictions from the climate models are to expect a greater frequency and intensity and duration of extreme events – floods, droughts, so on and so forth.”