Climate change: who and what may feel its effects

(The second in a series on climate change in this county)

GHENT—The renowned ecologist Barry Commoner said that “the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.” The climate changes reported in last week’s article (“By the numbers” December 8, Page 3) bear that out. Rising air temperatures pose health problems for people and affect livestock, crops, and wildlife including birds, insects, plants and trees.

According to Ron Pope, vice president of Medical Services at Columbia Memorial Health, vulnerable humans—children and the elderly as well as those with chronic illnesses—experience more respiratory illness, asthma and cardiac events as temperatures rise. In addition, diseases that are borne by insects, like Lyme, may increase because higher temperature and humidity enhance tick survival.

Likewise, livestock experience heat stress. Jim Davenport, a dairy farmer in Ancramdale, has a herd of Jerseys and Holsteins. “They are Northern European, and they like cooler weather. And, cows are like us; when it’s too hot they don’t want to eat much. Milk production suffers.”

Crop yields as well as viability are also changing. While the growing season has lengthened, with earlier warming has also come new insect challenges. With added heat, many insects grow faster and larger, like the “stink bug,” that “eats anything,” according to a Cornell Cooperative Extension report, “Farming Success in an Uncertain Climate.”

Volatile spring weather, with early frosts and then refreezing, may induce trees to bud early and then lose their buds, damaging the season’s growth. There have been years when there has been no fruit from wild apple trees as a result, says Anna Duhon of the Farmscape Ecology Program at Hawthorne Valley Association. Commercial growers similarly experience lower crop yields in such years.

Summer heat increases stress on some crops, especially when coupled with the changing precipitation patterns where heavy rains cannot be absorbed by the soils and largely run off the land. The result is lower crop yields and soil erosion.

Ben Dobson of Mud Creek Farm in Livingston, a second-generation organic farmer, has noted that invasives like Bittersweet and Multiflora rose now dominate hedgerows; pests like the ash borer and spongy moth flourish in the warmer climate, endangering many tree species; and phragmites are so nourished by the runoff of nitrogen from farms that cattails are all but extinct – all events causing significant changes to county wetlands and forests. Cattails, for example, provide wildlife habitat, shelter for birds, food and cover for fish and protect pond banks from erosion. In contrast, phragmites lower water levels in some wetlands and eradicate not only cattails but also smaller native grasses that are essential bird habitat.

‘…[C]ows are like us; when it’s too hot they don’t want to eat much. Milk production suffers.’

Jim Davenport

An Ancramdale dairy farmer

The interrelationship of species is seen in other observable ripples due to warming. A “complex of foliar diseases” affecting the needles of white pine trees is being accelerated by the warming temperatures. Much of the mature foliage is lost prematurely, impairing tree growth. In turn, wildlife are affected, as certain birds and small mammals depend on the seeds from the pines for food, bald eagles and cavity-nesting wildlife roost in them, and rabbit and deer browse their foliage. Joe Zema of Zema’s Nursury in the Rensselaer County Town of Stephentown says the damage is plainly noticeable in certain parts of the county. Stephentown borders on New Lebanon.

All told, roughly half of the bird species in the county are vulnerable to climate change and, according to the National Audubon Society, some 20% of our county’s bird population is highly vulnerable, including the field-testing bobolink, the field sparrow and the red-headed woodpecker. Similarly, about one-third of the local tree species, including the eastern white pine, sugar maple and green ash, are deemed at risk. Rainbow smelt have essentially disappeared from the Hudson River, while brook trout are heavily challenged.

With lessened snow cover, those animals whose coats turn white in winter to hide them from predators are more exposed. The insulating effect of snow on tree and plant roots is diminished, endangering them. And, because snow reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere, the absence of snow leads to greater heat absorption by the ground, increasing a feedback warming loop.

(Future articles will touch on projects here to adapt to local climate change.)

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