Most mornings, I walk into my office at PRBO’s headquarters in Petaluma and immediately check my computer, which has been running thousands of calculations all night long for our climate change models. I refer to this as “my minions working for me” while I am away.
|PRBO Spatial Ecologist Sam Veloz, PhD.|
If all has gone well, my minions have been churning through vast quantities of data to develop models of how our ecosystems will respond to climate change. On a good day, I might find a clear result that is insensitive to the uncertainties of future climate and could point to obvious conservation actions. On a bad day, I might find that my minions took a break after five minutes, because my models led to unpredictable behavior; in other words, I got an error.
"Part of my job is to use the best available science to identify when change is inevitable and to help decision makers plan for this change—so that we can adapt in ways that do not prevent other species from adapting along with us."
Although unpredictable behavior can be frustrating when we’re trying to develop flawless models of ecological systems, it also fascinates me. Studying climate change is different from traditional ecology, which uses observations of natural systems to explain the patterns we see. Instead, we are forced to use these present-day explanations to predict patterns of future systems that may be quite different than those we now observe in the world.
For example, PRBO has shown that the groups of birds species that occur together in the future are likely to be quite different than the groups we see in the landscape today. Though it’s challenging to know what future ecological communities will really look like, we can be fairly certain that, if climate changes as models suggest, the ecological communities we are accustomed to will change as well.
|This view of an extreme high tide during heavy winter storm runoff may be a preview of sea level rise in San Francisco Bay. Photo courtesy Peter Baye.|
Change is something I have recently experienced quite a lot. I’ve returned to northern California to work at PRBO after a stint as a researcher in Madison, Wisconsin—in a paleoecology lab. The transition from below-zero winter temperatures (and work on 20,000-year-old pollen and woolly mammoths) to balmy coastal California has been dramatic and welcome. So has getting my feet wet working on climate change and sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay area.
During the end of the last glacial cycle, between 21 and 15 thousand years ago (the time period I was formerly working on), the coastline near the bay extended to the Farallon islands: sea-level was up to 120 meters lower than it is today. I find this ironic, since these days I’m trying to model how tidal marsh ecosystems in San Francisco Bay will respond to two meters of sea-level rise over the next century.
It also reminds me that wildlife species have dealt with dramatic climate change events in the past. They may well be capable of adapting to the future climate if we stay out of their way—a task made difficult by barriers such as cities and levees. The question I am often left pondering is: will we be able to adapt?
Just as my minions, set for another round of modeling, will run the code the same way they did the night before, whether it worked or not, we humans are most comfortable keeping things running just as they have been. Part of my job is to use the best available science to identify when change is inevitable and to help decision makers plan for this change—so that we can adapt in ways that do not prevent other species from adapting along with us.