Seely on Science: From farm fields to bluebirds: heeding nature's climate clues

2012-11-15T19:00:00Z Seely on Science: From farm fields to bluebirds: heeding nature's climate cluesRON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal | rseely@madison.com | 608-252-6131 madison.com
November 15, 2012 7:00 pm  • 

It has taken a nightmarish hurricane in the waning days of a bitter presidential race to do it, but the phrase “climate change” has again made its way onto front pages. And, perhaps because of the tragic images of people struggling on the East Coast, the issue has taken on fresh urgency.

Earlier this week, Gus Speth, a noted environmental lawyer and advocate and a guest speaker at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies on the UW-Madison campus, said the often-ignored topic of climate change “is now being put forth by reality.”

More frequent and intense hurricanes and other storms as well as rising sea levels and subsequent catastrophic tidal surges have long been cited by scientists as consequences as the climate warms.

Here in Wisconsin, the clues have been many and they have come from just about every corner of the landscape — from farm fields to bluebird boxes.

Last week, the UW-Madison magazine Grow, a publication of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, published a lengthy article by Erik Ness in which he documented the struggles of Wisconsin farmers in the face of a warming climate.

Weather variability and higher temperatures have forced farmers to do their work differently. This past summer, they had to deal with drought. And it doesn’t take a research paper for farmers to understand what nature is telling them — the growing season in Wisconsin has lengthened by two to three weeks over the last half-century.

That’s not all bad for a farmer who will take all the growing time nature gives. But, as farmers told Ness, the wild swings in weather that come with a changing climate make it much harder to farm than in the past.

“The forecast,” Ness writes, “calls for a whole lot more, in the way of both opportunity and challenges. The simplest take is that slowly warming temperatures may help boost agricultural production by extending the growing season. But higher temperatures could also reduce corn and soy yields and lead to more pest problems. Higher annual rainfall and more intense storms could mean more soil erosion.”

Or consider the plight of the bluebird — Wisconsin’s own version of the canary in the coal mine.

An article in the Madison Audubon Society’s newsletter this month pointed out that the summer’s intense heat likely disrupted nesting efforts. Volunteer monitors keeping track of activity in bluebird boxes reported that some nesting pairs abandoned their eggs in the searing heat inside their boxes. And many pairs that fledged young early in the summer before the hot spell failed to attempt a second nest, even though during a normal summer they often raise a second or even a third brood.

Whether this summer’s heat and drought turns out to be a regional weather event or more evidence of a global phenomenon, we’ll have to wait to see.

But the likelihood of such swings is on the increase, and they should not catch anyone by surprise. Four years ago, Ken Potter, a UW-Madison engineer, warned after extensive flooding in the state that changes in design standards for everything from bridges to sewer pipes will be a necessary and crucial response to storms that have become more frequent and intense over the past two decades.

As a result, agencies such as the state Department of Transportation are looking more closely at how bridges are designed and built. So it will be with decisions in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast in the wake of Sandy, where rebuilding will no doubt take into account a future that seems to promise more peril.

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