PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 146, Fall 2006: New Technologies for Using Scientific Information


Urgent New Priorities for Conservation Science

Global Warming and PRBO

Ellie M. Cohen

Informatics at PRBO
Ellie Cohen on Global Warming
Marsh Birds
The Avian Knowledge Network
Birding Shollenberger Park
Citizen Science at PRBO

The earth's vast geologic time scale offers a startling perspective on human-driven environmental changes. If you set our planet's entire geologic history into one calendar year, with the earth formed on January 1st, then multi-cellular organisms first appear in mid-summer, birds in late December, and early humans at ten minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve.

The development of civilization that began 10,000 years ago, with the retreat of the last massive ice sheets from much of the Northern Hemisphere, occurs within the very last minute of this geologic year.

And within this last minute of time, our insatiable appetite for coal, gas, oil, and timber threatens to permanently tip the scales against human society and the wild animal kingdom--not in our children's generations, but now.

Global climate change is a top priority of PRBO's long-term strategic plan, nearing completion and guided by the outstanding Alumni Consulting Team of Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. We are gearing up to apply our extensive expertise in avian and ecosystem research, and in data management, tools and applications (see cover story), to advance understanding of how ecosystems function--and how global warming is impacting birds and their environs.

A new study by the British Antarctic Survey found that we humans have increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere to the highest levels of any time in the past 800,000 years. And the fastest significant increase occurred in just the past 17 years.

Effects will be lasting. While the ocean drives our weather day to day, it takes a few decades to absorb extra heat in the atmosphere. The deadly hurricanes, droughts, and heat waves we've recently experienced actually reflect the atmosphere of the 1970s--not any of the major increases in our carbon pollution since then.

Recent studies show that Greenland's ice sheet is melting three times faster than previously thought. In fact, the frequency of "icequakes"--the breaking off of enormous chunks of Greenland's ice at seismic magnitudes ranging from 4.6 to 5.1-- has increased five-fold just from 1993 (6) to 2005 (over 30).

The combination of a warming ocean with sea level rise, from rapidly melting ice in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Arctic (where ice is now melting even in the winter), will likely be devastating. Imagine Hurricane Katrina times a thousand.

And now the oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening to dissolve coral reefs and shells. As Dr. Terry Root, PRBO Board member and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explained, "Scientists in The Royal Society (Great Britain) warn that... the pH change already evident in the oceans will take tens of thousands of years to return to pre-industrial levels. What we are doing today will truly impact the lives of people over 500 generations from now."

Alarmingly, PRBO scientists are beginning to witness what appear to be the impacts of global warming, from Alaska to Antarctica.Severe fall and winter flooding is scouring and eroding coastal habitat in western Alaska, impacting waterbird breeding habitat. In addition, the timing of peak insect production, a key food source for waterbird chicks, is in danger of getting out of sync with the peak of breeding.

During the past two years, our scientists at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge found that Cassin's Auklets--small seabirds related to puffins--abandoned their nests en masse. Almost no chicks survived in our study plots, a level of breeding failure unprecedented in our 35 years of continuous research. It is likely that, at the height of the breeding season, parents couldn't find enough of their primary food source--shrimp-like krill, which also feeds whales, salmon, and other marine wildlife in this typically rich food web.

Climate change models predict more intense and extreme weather events that will increasingly threaten already sensitive bird populations. In Wyoming's high- elevation sagebrush habitats, our scientists have witnessed decreased hatching success and increased desertion rates of both eggs and young due to cold and wet summer weather. Our Sonoran Desert study plots this year faced some of the most severe drought conditions on record, causing dramatically reduced breeding success. In California's Great Central Valley, we are finding that decreased nest survival of riparian (streamside) songbirds is correlated to climate variability.

We have also witnessed Adélie Penguins in Antarctica forced to take longer routes to find food in the ocean for their chicks, as new city-sized icebergs break off the Ross Ice Shelf and impair access.

The grim predictions are that by 2050, about one-fourth of all animal and plant species on Earth will become extinct... gone forever. Indeed, we humans are causing the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history. Yet biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are essential to clean air, clean water, food, climate regulation, crop pollination, soil health, flood control, and much more.

The scientific evidence is undeniable. According to Dr. James Hansen, NASA's chief climatologist, we have less than ten years before global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible on a human time scale.

In the excellent Scientific American special issue on global warming (September 2006), Gary Stix wrote, "Preventing the transformation of the earth's atmosphere from greenhouse to unconstrained hothouse represents arguably the most imposing scientific and technical challenge that humanity has ever faced.... If we wait for an ice cap to vanish, it will simply be too late."

Though solutions do exist, the challenge is unprecedented. For example, coal is the worst carbon polluter but the cheapest of fossil fuels. To meet the growing global energy demand, about 850 new coal-fired electric plants are currently planned for the US, China and India. Some predict that by 2012 their emissions will outweigh reductions under the Kyoto Accord if available carbon capture technologies are not installed.

Just to reduce world carbon pollution to 1990 levels, we must make significant changes today. It is ever more urgent that individuals, communities and nations invest in home and business energy conservation measures, develop non-carbon-polluting means of transportation and electricity production, and stop deforestation.

In this last minute on the earth's vast geologic timeline, it is my hope that we at PRBO will make significant contributions to a new field of conservation science: mitigating, and when possible reversing, the destructive impacts of a quickly changing climate on the long-evolved and beautifully complex natural world that sustains us all.

Ellie's recommended resource list:

· (Environmental Defense), (Union of Concerned Scientists), and are among many excellent web resources for what you can do and for general background information.

· Sign up at for news updates.· For more on climate change policy, legislation, and innovative partnerships, see (Pew Center on Global Climate Change), especially "Agenda for Climate Action," February 2006, free download.· For a global view, see the UN's Millennium "Ecosystem Assessment: Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being" at

Books and Articles:

· Flannery, Tim. The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. 2005. Atlantic Monthly Press, NY.

· Linden, Eugene. The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations. 2006. Simon and Schuster, NY.

· Oreskes, Naomi. "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change." Science, December 2004. Free online (search by title and author).

· Stix, Gary. "A Climate Repair Manual." Scientific American, September 2006. Intro article available free online. See other articles on energy conservation, coal, nuclear, biofuels and renewables in this excellent special issue, "Energy's Future: Beyond Carbon, How to Power the Economy and Still Fight Global Warming."

· Wilson, E.O. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. 2006. W. W. Norton, N.Y.

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