Category Archives: Climate Change

Safely Underground

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the raging bushfires in Australia there’s a bit of happy news. Wombats are unintentionally saving wildlife.

Wombats are nocturnal marsupials that live in burrows which they dig with their teeth and claws. Specially adapted for their underground life, the female’s pouch where she carries her young faces backward so that dirt doesn’t get into it.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are the smallest of the three wombat species. At 30 inches long and weighing 42 to 71 pounds, their extensive tunnels have many entrances, long “hallways,” several large warrens, and smaller chambers. They are known to share their burrows with other wombats and are tolerant of visits by other species. Southern hairy-nosed wombats live in the fire zone.

Wombat burrow in New South Wales, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Rescuers figured out the importance of wombat burrows when they found healthy, unscathed animals wandering in newly burned areas including small wallabies, echidnas, lizards, skinks and rabbits. As the fires approached, the fleeing animals dove into wombat burrows to shelter safely while the firestorm passed overhead.

Two species that may benefit from the wombat burrows are shown below.

The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is common in the bushfire area, measuring 27-30 inches excluding its tail. Rock wallabies are even smaller.

Swamp wallaby feeding on leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are egg-laying mammals like the platypus that measure 12-18 inches long. They eat ants and termites.

Sheltering underground is not a new thing. It turns out that small mammals survived the meteor that killed the dinosaurs by hiding safely underground. Wombats are inadvertently doing their bit to save wildlife today.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smaller is Normal

Song sparrow, western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

From their 29% population decline to the continued loss of federal protection the news about birds has not been good in recent months. When a December 2019 study from Chicago’s Field Museum found that North American birds have been shrinking since 1978 you may have wondered, “Is this bad news for birds?” Not exactly.

The study published in Ecology Letters measured 70,000 window-killed birds collected in Chicago since 1978. Analysis showed that the 52 species significantly declined in body size during the 40 year period (1978-2018). This mirrors a 2010 study conducted at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania which used 46 years of banding data (1961-2007) to analyze the body size of nearly 500,000 birds in 102 species. Powdermill also saw a decline in body size.

Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.

We should expect this.

There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.

Song sparrows in Carnegie Museum of Natural History collection, Alaska on top row, Pennsylvania on bottom row (photo by Kate St. John, Dec 2016)

Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):

  • On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
  • On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.

Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!

Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.

It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:

  1. Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
  2. Birds can evolve quickly when they have to.

Read about the Field Museum study at North American birds are shrinking. Read more about the Powdermill study at Birds are getting smaller.

p.s. This article was inspired by Andrew Nikiforuk’s As The Birds Vanish.

(top photo by Steve Gosser, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Ponds On The Ocean

Ponds on the Arctic Ocean (photo by NASA’s Kathryn Hanson via Wikimedia Commons)

Ice and snow are returning this weekend in Pittsburgh but they won’t look like this.

In July 2011 two men walked between the melt ponds on top of the ice on the Arctic Ocean. The patterns and texture resemble flocked fabric. Click here to see a fabric sample.

When the ice breaks the freshwater ponds will fall into the sea. Fortunately the two men will be back on their boat before that happens.

Find out why they’re there in the photo description at this link.

(photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Not With My Relatives

Two scythebill species: black-billed (left), red-billed (right) (from Wikimedia Commons)

When deforestation and climate change destroy swaths of habitat, some people assume that birds will be OK because, unlike mammals, they can fly to new locations.

However a 2012 study of two closely related scythebills discovered that the displaced birds don’t survive, even in habitat like the ones they left, because they’re out-competed by the locals.

On Throw Back Thursday, find out why these birds can’t survive near their relatives in this vintage blog: Why Don’t They Just Move?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)

No Winter Fun

Snow shovel riding, Slovakia 1959 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that climate change has really settled in there are loads of free fun winter activities that we can’t do in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship was postponed last Saturday. Last year it was eventually canceled. As the Beaver County Times wrote last month:

The Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship returns in 2020. That comes with the major assumption that sufficient snow rests on the 165-foot hill at Old Economy Park, just off Route 989 in Economy, on Jan. 11 or the makeup date of Jan. 18.

Beaver County Times, Let it snow, if shovel riding championship is to return

Last Saturday, 11 January 2020, was so hot that it broke a 130-year record. At Pittsburgh International Airport, nine miles from that Beaver County hillside, it was 71 degrees F. Of course there was no snow.

Other winter fun we’re missing includes building snowmen, making snow angels, and cross country skiing. These still might happen for a day or two if we get one big snowfall.

Building a snowman at Lafayette Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Making a snow angel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Cross country skiing, Aroostook NWR, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But some winter fun is just plain dangerous in today’s world. Ice fishermen used to count on our frozen lakes but these days the ice is missing or very thin. Unsafe!

Ice fishing at Price Gallitzin State Park, PA, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To emphasize this dilemma, the Great Lakes were virtually ice free on January 12.

Ice coverage on Great Lakes, 12 Jan 2020 analysis (map from US National Ice Center)

No winter fun.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; map from U.S. National Ice Center; click on the captions to see the originals)

In The End, The Sea Will Win

American oystercatcher in flight, New Jersey (photo by Tony Bruno)

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Tomorrow the New Jersey legislature will consider a bill that will either protect or destroy 15 acres of state park land where a neighboring golf course wants to build 3 golf holes. The showdown between those who love public parks and nature versus extremely rich developers is well described in the New York Times: Golf Club for the 1 Percent Wants to Seize a Migratory Bird Habitat.

I don’t know how the fight will play out in human terms but I’m sure of one thing. In the end the sea will win.

Caven Point Natural Area is a sandy peninsula on the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, a migratory bird stopover and nesting site so sensitive that the area is closed April through September to leave the birds in peace. American oystercatchers, shown above, are some of the cool birds you can see there.

Though it’s part of Liberty State Park, Caven Point Natural Area (yellow circle) is not contiguous to it.

Map of Liberty State Park (map from New Jersey State Parks)

Its adjacent neighbor is the very exclusive Liberty National Golf Club whose seawall borders the footpath to the site.

Hudson River Waterfront Walkway to Caven Point. Liberty National Golf Club seawall is on the right (photo by Bill Benson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Liberty National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the US with an initiation fee of nearly half a million dollars. The course has breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline which you may have seen on television last August when Liberty National hosted the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Playoffs from August 6–11, 2019. This photo, uploaded by Redi-Rock International in 2015, gives you an idea of the view.

Scene from Liberty National Golf Club (photo by Redi-Rock International via Flickr Creative Commons license)

To us humans, Nature is the backdrop to the protests, letter writing, legislation and legal battles, but Nature will be the foreground in the years ahead. Climate change and sea level rise will engulf Caven Point and part of the existing golf course. It is already happening.

This map of the Caven Point area from NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer shows red where the highest high tides inundate the land today. This doesn’t include the 5-foot wall of water that washed over the area during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Caven Point sea level at high high tide (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

If the ocean rises 3 feet, as predicted for this century, Caven Point will become an island, ponds on the existing golf course will overflow (green) and the end of Liberty National’s parking lot near the clubhouse will be underwater every day (green).

Inundation from 3-foot sea level rise (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

Even if it doesn’t rise three feet very soon …

“Nobody’s debating that sea-level rise is happening. It’s back to how much, how fast,” Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me. Even the most optimistic scientists have recently increased their low-end estimates, she said.

from The Atlantic, 4 January 2019

In the end, the sea will win. In the meantime, save the land for the birds.

UPDATE on 14 JAN 2020: The New Jersey legislature failed to act on the bill & it was the last day of the legislative session so the bill is dead unless reintroduced in the next session. See Despite gaining senate support, Liberty State Park Protection Act dead for now.

(photo of American oystercatcher by Tony Bruno. Caven Point walkway by Bill Benson on Flickr, Liberty National Golf Course by Redi-Rock International on Flickr, maps from New Jersey State Parks and NOAA Sea Level Viewer; click on the captions to see the originals)

What We’re Missing In Today’s Hot Weather

Macro snowflakes in frozen bubble (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2020

Winter has a beauty all its own but we’re missing it in Pittsburgh this year. Today our high temperature will be 70oF.

Here’s some of what we’ll never see in today’s hot weather.

Hoarfrost on Hibiscus (photo by Reinhold Möller via Wikimedia Commons)
Snow on Queen Anne’s lace, 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tiny snowman at Gilfillan Park, 2 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pittsburgh is not alone in feeling the heat. Here’s today’s temperature forecast for the continental U.S. It looks like a Polar Vortex doesn’t it? High winds are on the way!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John, map from the National Weather Service; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Hot Wet Year Ahead

If you live in Pittsburgh — or Alaska — you can expect a hot wet year in 2020.

In late December National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center published U.S. seasonal outlook maps for 2020’s temperature and precipitation, one map per quarter.

For temperature, the redder the color the more likely it will be hotter than normal. For precipitation, green means it’s likely to be wetter. Pittsburgh is high in both categories, hot and wet. So is Alaska, especially in temperature.

Watch the year heat up.

(images from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, Monthly & Seasonal Outlook Maps)

Best Bird Of The First Day

Turkey vulture (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)

For many years now my First Bird of the Year is always the American crow because hundreds fly over my house before dawn, cawing as they disperse from the roost. The only way a different species could win “First Bird” is if I cheated and ignored the obvious.

This year I decided to change the challenge to Best Bird of the First Day. My 2020 winner is the turkey vulture that used to be absent on January 1.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are South American birds who’ve expanded their range into North America, year-round residents in the southern U.S. but only summer visitors up north.

Vultures migrate because they can’t eat our winter food supply. Though carrion is available year-round their beaks aren’t strong enough to rip open frozen food.

However climate change is doing them a favor. Last month in Pittsburgh most days were barely below freezing and five recent days were as much as 20 degrees above normal. Nothing was frozen.

Turkey vultures used to leave Pittsburgh for the winter but in this century a few began to linger here. The most reliable group roosted within sight of Dashields Dam on the Ohio River. Last month additional vultures were reported during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. Even so, I was surprised to see two of them soaring over McKnight Road on the first day of the year.

As more turkey vultures become year-round residents of Pittsburgh we can sing “Here to stay is the new bird” for yet another species.

(photo and map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

Things Have Changed

Sunset on a hot day (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s October but you wouldn’t know it by stepping outdoors. We’re still running the air conditioner and wearing summer clothes. Today’s low temperature of 68oF is the normal high for October 1 in Pittsburgh. Our 90oF high will be 22 degrees above normal. It feels like August.

It didn’t used to be this way. Do you remember when you used to turn on the heat in September or suffer because you delayed to save money? Ten years ago our furnace broke and we were cold! I wrote this on 1 October 2009:

The weather has been getting colder every day for a week.  This morning it was in the upper 30s at dawn.  By now most of you have turned on your heat, but not us.  We’re toughing it out until we get a new furnace.  The old one won’t turn on and rather than pay to fix it I thought we could cope without it until the furnace man comes with a new one on Friday.

from “Huddle,” Outside My Window, 1 October 2009

Without a functioning furnace in late September 2009 we wore coats indoors and huddled under blankets at night. That was normal weather back then.

For the past ten years our climate has been changing, but so gradually that we only remark on the extremes: unbearable heat, super low cold, or incredibly wet weather. We humans accept the new normal so quickly that we lose sight of what’s happening.

It’s good to look back ten years and realize it was normal to wear coats on October 1.

Things have changed.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)