PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 156, Spring 2009: Ecological Consequences of Climate Change


A Personal Perspective

Our Changing Climate and PRBO

Ellie M. Cohen

CEO's Column
Fingerprints of Climate Change
Projecting Birds' Future
Song Sparrows and Climate
PRBO's Climate Change Initiative
Climate Modeling
Planned Giving
Focus on a Home Patch
PRBO Highlights

Ellie M. Cohen, just outside PRBO's headquarters on Earth Day 2009. PRBO photo.
When I was in seventh grade, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: study forestry and Russian, then work to bring together the world's superpowers through our common love of nature. Well, I did eventually enroll in a forestry program and take one semester of Russian, but I quickly realized I was not interested in harvesting forests; and while I enjoyed the language studies, my passion steered me toward the ecological sciences, environmental policy, and, of course, all life that flies, from butterflies to birds!

Nature has always inspired my soul, my sense of communal and global responsibility, and my intellectual curiosity. As a junior in college, one of my favorite classes was a graduate seminar on arctic-alpine ecology with Dwight Billings, a leader in the field. I discovered that the natural world has changed dramatically over eons, centuries, and even decades. I learned that variations in weather and longer-term climate patterns could be seen right before our eyes, in tree rings and sediment layers (this was before the use of ice cores became prominent ).

I also learned about the consequences for natural systems of what appeared to be minor human disturbance. Professor Billings showed photographs of vehicle tracks from oil exploration in the "permanently" frozen tundra, and of the much deeper ruts that persisted and tore up the landscape only a few years later. Those images foreshadowed the impacts of ever-growing human consumption of fossil fuels on this highly sensitive environment.
A Cassin's Auklet on Southeast Farallon Island. Ron Levalley photo.

Fast forward to 2005, when Cassin's Auklets at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, 27 miles west of San Francisco, experienced complete breeding failure. Wind patterns and ocean currents changed in such unusual ways that krill, the shrimp-like food that auklets (as well as salmon and other marine wildlife) depend upon, became completely unavailable.

A new mantle for PRBO

The auklet failure recurred in 2006, paralleled by two years of songbird breeding failure in the desert Southwest due to extreme drought. At the same time, our budding analyses of songbird spring and fall arrival dates in Central California showed significant changes due to climate factors. Thus, PRBO took on a new mantle as highlighted in this Observer: assessing and addressing climate change impacts on birds and the natural world.

This new focus was recently formalized, when PRBO's staff and Board of Directors completed a five-year strategic plan with an appropriately audacious goal: to reduce the negative impacts of rapid environmental change on bird populations and the ecosystems that sustain them.

The plan charts a course for our work over the near future to address rapid climate change, sea-level rise, altered land uses, expanding development, and other human impacts, on land and at sea. Bringing our expertise to bear on accelerating and unpredictable changes in the natural world requires a significantly greater focus and coordination than ever before in PRBO's accomplished 44-year history. Our actions will help:

---Enhance the ability of bird populations and ecosystems to respond to environmental change;

---Sustain nature's benefits to wildlife and human communities; and,

---Ensure that public and private investments yield the greatest conservation benefits during rapid environmental change.

Like the tree rings that inspired me so long ago, PRBO's long-term data sets are providing valuable insights into change over time, enabling us to play a role in sustaining the richness of life on Earth.

Who knows, I just might fulfill my childhood aspirations--as we at PRBO pursue our vision and thereby help unify the world through our common love of, and reliance on, the wonders of nature.

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