A few days ago, the United Nations released a ground-breaking report stating that more than one million species are at risk of extinction due to human actions and climate change.

U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, refuted concerns over declining Arctic Sea ice. Instead, Pompeo, during a meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland last week, contended the council’s concerns, and suggest declining sea ice is a good thing. His stance, say experts, especially in the wake of the UN’s report, seems quite shortsighted and misguided.

Arctic sea ice photo courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

Thawing of the polar ice caps is well-documented by scientists as a significant symptom of climate change that has monumental implications worldwide. This includes the disappearance of habitat for species that call the Arctic Regions home.

Bill McKibben, a renowned author and environmentalist, writes it best in The New Yorker.

“As the fastest warming part of the planet, [The Arctic] offers a terrifying preview of what’s coming. It’s white ice once deflected most of the sun’s incoming rays back out to space; now the blue water that’s replaced it absorbs the incoming solar radiation, amping up global warming. Meanwhile, the melting permafrost produces clouds of methane, itself a potent greenhouse gas… Of all the scary spectacles on our Earth, none tops a fast-thawing north.”

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, was created to discuss issues Arctic nations, governments and indigenous peoples face. It is comprised of eight member countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Though his peers raised legitimate concerns over the catastrophic implications of climate change, Pompeo’s comments appear to indicate his focus on dollar-signs.

“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” he said. “It houses 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare-earth metals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore.” (Per The New Yorker)

Pompeo argued that declining sea ice is opening previously inaccessible trade-routes; “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as many as 20 days.” he stated.

While this might be factually true, it is short-sighted. If the lack of sea ice at the poles raises sea levels around the globe, inundating island nations and seaports, it might not matter how fast one can reach them by ship.

If discussing climate change within the context of the North Pole is seems somewhat distant, consider this: the implications of climate change aren’t isolated to the poles.

In Central Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Crested Butte has been studying the effects of climate change for years.

Executive Director of RMBL, Dr. Ian Billick, highlights RMBL’s well-documented changes in Rocky Mountain ecosystems caused by climate change. Particularly, effects on wildflowers.

Courtesy photo

“We have one of the largest collections of long-term studies on wildflowers,” said Billick. “What we see in the Rockies are substantial changes in the timing of when things happen.”

Billick explained that many species have environmental triggers that alert an organism when to commence a biological action. For example, wildflowers begin to bloom when the temperatures increase in the spring. Billick and his team of researchers have found that wildflowers are beginning to bloom earlier in the season in correlation with warmer early-season temperatures.

“In the high Rockies, snowmelt date initiates the plant growing season. The snowmelt date is arriving earlier at RMBL, and this, in turn, is causing earlier flowering in species” reads an RMBL report on pollination.

This is evidenced by the growing season’s increase in length over the last four decades. According to David Inouye, a University of Maryland biologist who works with RMBL, the growing season is “defined as the snowmelt date until the first date of a temperature of 25 degrees [Fahrenheit] or lower in the fall.”

Source RMBL Research Laboratory

A longer growing season may sound beneficial. However, as Billick points out, when wildflowers bloom earlier, then they are susceptible to freezing events (and late snow events) that can kill plants before they flower.

“In Aspen sunflowers, for example, we’ve seen [those] freezing events kill flowering plants and they don’t seed,” said Billick. “It takes a while for the climate to impact the actual [population] numbers of flowers, but the timing [of blooming] is changing.”

Billick says it’s simple: when a plant doesn’t seed, then it doesn’t reproduce. Though this takes time to impact the overall population, it is already occurring.

Billick also pointed out that lower-elevation plant life is starting to take over at higher elevations as warming continues.

“Going up in elevation is like going backward in time,” said Billick. “We expect fewer wildflowers and more of the sage-like vegetation that is found in lower elevations.”

Wildflower habitat is disappearing as warmer temperatures creep into higher elevations.

Taken individually, Billick acknowledges that these types of changes are not bad on their own. Yet, “they are harbingers of change,” he said.

These small, seemingly insignificant changes can have dire consequences for the greater system.

“Our agricultural systems, food systems, water, they depend on things working in a certain way,” said Billick. “These are highly optimized systems. These changes, potentially, have huge implications.”

With these climate change symptoms already occurring, their effects are relevant to daily life.

“The Aspen sunflowers are a model of what we can expect with agricultural systems,” said Billick. He explained that one-third of calories consumed by humans are from plants dependent on pollinators for reproducing.

According to the pollination study completed by the RMBL, “Pollen can be moved by wind or even water, but in about 90 percent of flowering plant species, it is transported by flower-visiting animals – pollinators. …The seeds and fruits [pollination] produce are essential to our diets and to the health of natural ecosystems.”

When plants bloom earlier in the spring, the pollinators (birds, bees, bats, other bugs) are not around to visit the flowers. The misalignment of pollinator presence and wildflower blooming collapses the ecological network.

“The take-home is that climate change is disrupting the timing of the relationship between pollinators and the plants they visit,” said Billick. He points to Colorado’s Palisade peaches as an example of a business whose future lies in the climate change’s crosshairs., because the peach blossoms require pollination at the right time for a crop to mature.

Billick offered Crested Butte’s self-declared designation as ‘the wildflower capital of the world’ as another example.

“Wildflowers are a huge economic driver here,” said Billick. “As we lose wildflowers, there are economic implications.”

Andrew Mackie, the executive director of the Central Colorado Conservancy, echoes the UN report on biodiversity and RMBL’s findings on mountain ecology.

“It’s hard to quantify [the changes]” said Mackie, “We never know what piece of a system is a vital link to that system, and when you pull it out everything collapses around it. There’s a reason all of these things work together.”

Mackie suggested commercial fisheries as an example of human-caused declining bio-diversity, as highlighted in the UN report.

Mackie pointed to the epic collapse of the Atlantic cod fisheries in the 1990s. Humans depleted the populations of Atlantic cod through over-fishing. Tens of thousands of fishermen lost work, and the economic fallout was disastrous.

“These things have huge impacts on our society,” said Mackie. “If we don’t start thinking long-term, there is a point where we can’t reverse [the changes].”

The disruptions Mackie and RMBL reference are, using a weather analogy, are only flurries on the cusp of a blizzard.

“It’s hard for people to [understand] how quickly these ecosystems are going to change,” said Billick, “It’s easy to think these landscapes are going to be here forever. They’re not. There will be dramatic consequences. We need to start engaging and problem-solving.”

Read the RMBL’s article on Pollination by following this link:

RMBL Pollination Research