June 7, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Climate Change is Causing Extreme Weather Events

Mr. President, I am really grateful to the junior Senator from Delaware for inviting me to his home State and for joining me here today for my “Time to Wake Up” speech No. 139.

Senator Coons and I spent a terrific day touring the Delaware shore. You can say whatever you want about us, but on that day we were the two wettest Members of the U.S. Senate. I can assure you of that.

This is Capitol Hill Ocean Week, and Wednesday is World Oceans Day, so it is a good time to consider the effects of global climate change in our oceans. The oceans have absorbed one-third of all carbon dioxide produced since the industrial revolution and over 90 percent of the excess heat that has resulted. That means that by laws of both physics and chemistry, the oceans are warming, rising, and acidifying.

Rhode Island is the Ocean State, but give Delaware credit. From the last report in 2013, it generated around $1 billion and over 23,000 jobs from the ocean based in tourism, recreation, shipping, and fishing.

Like Rhode Island, Delaware sees its sea level rise at a rate of 3 1/3 millimeters per year along the Delaware shore, 13 inches up over the last 100 years. Delawareans care about this issue. Over a quarter have reported personally experiencing the effects of sea level rise, two-thirds worry about the effects of sea level rise, and over 75 percent called on the State to take immediate action to combat climate change and sea level rise.

I did enjoy our visit in South Wilmington, and I enjoyed the visit to Port Mahon, where the roads had to be built up with riprap to protect against sea level rise. But the real prize and the prime reason I went was Port Mahon’s avian connection. Among the sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and gulls we saw on the shore was a bird called the rufa red knot. Red knots stand out from other shore birds on the beach not only for their colorful burnt orange plumage but also for the amazing story that accompanies their arrival in Delaware each spring. This is a story to love, and I guess you would have to say a bird to admire.

They have only about a 20-inch wingspan at full growth, and the body is only about the size of a teacup, but each spring these red knots undertake an epic 9,000-plus mile voyage from Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America up to the Canadian Arctic. After spending the summer nesting in the Arctic, they make the return trip south to winter in the Southern Hemisphere. This little bird has one of the longest animal migrations of any species on Earth.

How does Delaware come into this? Well, the red knots fly straight from Brazil to Delaware Bay. As you can imagine, when they get there, they are hungry. They have lost as much as half their weight. We were told they start to ingest their own organs toward the end.

Delaware Bay is the largest horseshoe crab spawning area in the world. Each May, horseshoe crabs lay millions of eggs. Nearly 2 million horseshoe crabs were counted in Delaware Bay in 2015, and a female can lay up to 90,000 eggs per spawning season. Do the math. That is a lot of eggs.

The red knots come here timed just so by Mother Nature to bulk up on the nutritious horseshoe crab eggs to replenish their wasted bodies from the long flight to Delaware Bay and to fuel up for the 2,000 further miles of journey to the Canadian Arctic.

I wanted to see this before it ends. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the red knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because “successful annual migration and breeding of red knots is highly dependent on the timing of departures and arrivals to coincide with favorable food and weather conditions in the spring and fall migratory stopover areas and on the Arctic breeding grounds.” Climate change can bollix up that timing.

We are already seeing that in a different subspecies of red knots that migrate north along the West African coast. A study published in the journal Science last month found that the earlier melt of Arctic snow is accelerating the timeline for the hatching of insects in spring, leading to smaller birds. The chicks, being less strong, begin to weaken and can’t feed as successfully, and it cascades through an array of further difficulties.

You actually have to love this unassuming and astounding little bird, but its survival relies on a cascade of nature’s events to line up just right. Nature throws a long bomb from Tierra del Fuego, where these birds start, and off they go. Months later they arrive in Delaware Bay timed to this 450 million-year-old creature, the horseshoe crab, emerging from Delaware Bay to spawn. If one environmental event comes too early or too late or if one food source becomes too limited, the species could collapse.

We got ahead of that in the 1990s when horseshoe crabs became rare because they were overfished. As their numbers went down, the red knot fell in accord.

If the changes we are so recklessly putting in motion on the planet disturb nature’s fateful planning, the red knot could pay a sad price.

Some people may snicker and say: There he goes again. Now he is on the Senate floor talking about some stupid bird. But I say this: When one sees the voyage that this bird has to make, a little shore bird used to running along the shore making this epic voyage every year–one of them has been measured, because of a tag on its ankle, to have flown the distance from here to the moon and halfway back in its life–if one can’t see the hand of God in that creature, I weep for their soul.

So I thank my colleague from Delaware for his staff and the experts he brought along to help us learn about this. Like Rhode Island, Delaware has been proactive in planning for the risks that we face in a warmer and wetter future.

I yield the floor to the distinguished junior Senator from Delaware.