09.04.18

Time To Wake Up: Around the Warming World

As-prepared for delivery

I’m grateful to my colleague from New Mexico for joining me today for my 218th “Time to Wake Up” speech.  Senator Udall is a formidable advocate for conserving our public lands and protecting endangered species¾helping ensure future generations will inherit a healthy and beautiful planet. 

These lands and creatures are under direct attack from the current administration (and the heavy hand of industry that guides it) through regulatory rollbacks and other efforts to weaken protections for special places and wildlife.  But they are also under siege from the consequences of climate change. 

Just last week, both The Washington Post and The Atlantic reported on a recent study in the prestigious journal Science.  The titles of their articles were foreboding: “Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystem’s unrecognizable” for The Washington Post, and “No ecosystem on Earth is safe from climate change” from The Atlantic.  The study looked at historic vegetation and temperature records to predict how global warming will transform our world. 

Dr. Stephen Jackson, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the study’s lead author, told The Atlantic “Anywhere on the globe, the more you change climate, the more likely you are to see major ecological change.  Having this kind of change occur at such a massive scale in such a short period of time is going to create unprecedented challenges…” 

Dr. Dorothy Peteet, a researcher with NASA who commented on the article, said things like changes in rainfall patterns, wildfires, floods, and other events “are notable effects of climate change we are seeing today… and they will probably by much more exacerbated in the future.”

From the mountains to the sea, from the North Pole to the South, climate change is wreaking havoc on our natural systems and the living creatures that rely on them for their survival.  A study from Global Change Biology earlier this year found “a strong association between rapid climate warming and declines of bird and mammal populations, showing that population declines have been greatest in areas that have experienced most rapid warming.”

Birds are often seen as sentinels of an ecosystem’s health, and are especially vulnerable to climate change.  In particular, migratory birds, some of which travel thousands of miles each year to breed, rely on a delicate balance of temperature cues and food availability to successfully make their impressive journeys.

Here on the East Coast, Delaware Bay enjoys an annual visit from the Rufa red knot, a bird with a body no larger than a teacup, but whose wings carry it on a more than 9,000-mile voyage from Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic. 

After spending the summer nesting in the north, they make the return trip south to winter in the Southern Hemisphere.  On their journey north, the red knots fly straight from Brazil to Delaware Bay.  They lose as much as half their body weight on this trip, but Mother Nature provides a bounty upon their arrival.  

The Bay is the largest horseshoe crab spawning area in the world.  Each May, millions of horseshoe crabs take part in a mating ritual that predates the dinosaurs.  Each female horseshoe crab can lay up to 90,000 eggs per spawning season, and horseshoe crab eggs make excellent fuel for hungry birds relishing a pause on a long journey.  

But warming waters and shifting seasons threaten to knock the timing of both species’ cycles out of whack.  If the environmental cues come too early or too late, the horseshoe crabs and the birds can miss each other, and the species could struggle, or even collapse.

The dependence on predictability in seasonal changes affects the survival of much of the world’s wildlife.  In 2014, the National Audubon Society published a comprehensive review of how climate change would affect the ranges of nearly 600 North American bird species.  More than half of the species studied are at risk of losing more than 50 percent of their current range to climate change by 2080.  Around a quarter of the species studied could see their range shrink that much by 2050.

Mr. President, let’s move out West, to the tallest peaks of the Rockies.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Northern Rocky Mountains have been warming more than three times as fast as the global average over the past 100 years.  A 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists report warns that the Rocky Mountains will “become even hotter and drier” leading to increased wildfire risks, reduced snowpack, and declines in the keystone trees that define the Rocky Mountain forests. 

A recent study by U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University researchers found that though some species with a current wide range and higher tolerance for disturbances, like elk and deer, may make out relatively unscathed, species like the pygmy rabbit, wolverine, Canada lynx, and snowshoe hare that have more specific habitat requirements will be particularly vulnerable.  Aside from suffering habitat loss, some mountain amphibians are also at greater risk from a harmful, invasive fungus, imported into the United States through the exotic pet trade, that thrives in warmer temperatures. 

The increased spread of diseases and invasive species is a recurring theme in climate change projections.  Animals and plants already stressed from depleted food and changing temperatures are more susceptible to disease.  And stressed ecosystems leave openings for new species to move in and take over. 

In July, my Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management discovered the invasive and injurious emerald ash borer in the state.  After hitting U.S. shores in the early 2000s in wood packing material, the beetle, referred to as “the green menace” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has spread to around 30 states and destroyed tens of millions of ash trees in its wake.

As we move seaward, coastal states are facing a red menace in their waters—the harmful algae blooms known as red tide.  As you’ve probably seen, Florida is currently battling a devastating toxic algae bloom that has, according to Quartz, “killed masses of fish, 12 dolphins, more than 500 manatees, 300 sea turtles, countless horseshoe crabs, [and] a whale shark” as of August 22.  Locals and tourists alike are greeted with the apocalyptic view of decaying marine life along the docks and beaches and air tainted with the algae’s toxins.  Quartz writes this year’s “red tide in Florida doesn’t just make the issue of global warming visible; it’s an all-out sensory onslaught.”

Though algal blooms do occur annually in the warm waters of Florida, this year’s bloom is a harbinger of the shifting reality of climate change.  The Washington Post notes, “As air and ocean temperatures increase, the environment becomes more hospitable to toxic algal blooms.”  In addition to these warmer water temperatures, climate change also spurs heavy downpours, which wash more fertilizer from farms and lawns into the ocean, providing the nutrients that spur the rapid growth of the algae.  Sea level rise is also expanding the area of shallow coastal waters where warm temperatures and ample sunshine bolster growing algae. 

The oceans are also experiencing “marine heatwaves.”  According to a recent review in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, these extended periods of elevated sea surface temperatures “have caused changes in biological production, toxic algal blooms, regime shifts in reef communities, mass coral bleaching, and mortalities of commercially important fish species, with cascading impacts on economies and societies.” 

A marine heat wave is responsible for the dramatic coral bleaching that occurred in the Great Barrier Reef in recent years, killing about half of the reef since 2016.  In recent weeks, San Diego recorded its highest seawater temperature, around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, since measurements started in 1916. 

The Nature study attributed 87 percent of modern marine heat waves to human-caused climate change, warning these heat waves “will become very frequent under global warming, probably pushing marine organisms and ecosystems to the limits of their resilience and even beyond.”  Couple these extreme heat spells with ocean acidification, deoxygenation, and changes in ocean circulation and currents and you’re looking at a perfect storm for our coral reefs, fisheries, and ocean wildlife.

Marine and atmospheric heatwaves are contributing to the rapid opening of the Arctic sea ice.  Iconic images of starving polar bears have brought the loss of sea ice home.  But sea ice also provides protection for narwhals, hosts algae that feed Arctic cod and whales, and provides an interstate highway of sorts for wolf and fox populations.  But this crux of the Arctic ecosystem, its ice, is falling apart. 

For the first time since scientists started monitoring the Arctic’s sea ice cover in the 1970s, the waters north of Greenland are breaking through the usually permanently frozen ice cover.  This area, until now, had been assumed to be the Arctic ice’s stronghold, the strongest and oldest ice plain in the Arctic.  But spikes of warm temperatures earlier this year allowed the weakened ice to be pushed from shore, leaving it vulnerable to wind and wave action. 

Dr. Walt Meier with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center called this loss of sea ice “a pretty dramatic indication of the transformation of the Arctic sea ice and Arctic climate.”  A researcher with the Norwegian Metrological Institute put it even simpler, calling it “[n]ice and scary.”

Mr. President, I could go on, citing example after example of how climate change is altering our world .  What right do we have to force this burden on Mother Nature through our wretched carbon addiction?

I yield the floor.