Climate change in harm birding

Based on the campaign promises, platform and recent track record of the Republican Party, the future has dimmed for many birds.

The biggest existential threat to most bird species is global climate change. Rising seas wipe out their island, marsh, and beach habitats. Disproportionate warming at the poles silently melts millions of acres of prime breeding habitat. Changing ocean currents and upwellings displace the nutrients that power bird food webs. Mountain top refuges are overrun with plant species now able to survive at higher elevations. Protected areas created for endangered species are no longer in the correct location as ecological communities try to move north.

Climate change is happening, it is caused by humans, and scientists have understood the phenomenon for a century. Because incoming light energy can pass through a carbon dioxide molecule unhindered, but the reflected heat energy interacts with the same molecule on its way back to space, adding carbon dioxide to our air will trap heat near earth. Think of light passing through a greenhouse roof, and the resulting heat being trapped temporarily by the glass on its way out.

What is still uncertain is how bad the conditions in any particular place will be for birds. Warmer air evaporates more water from the ocean, so that in places that normally get rain, more water will come down, leading to severe flooding. Arid lands will also suffer higher evaporation, killing trees and leading to droughts and increased wildfires. Rare weather events such as hurricanes will have more wind energy from the extra heat, and thus will be more destructive when they hit land. Birds have complex life cycles and intricate migration paths, all of which have evolved to work well in our current climate. Avian populations can continue to evolve in the face of gradual changes, but the flooding, drought, fires and storms we are causing will overwhelm their capacity to adjust, leading to extinction.

Climate scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and severity of the changes we can now measure precisely with NASA satellites. People who deny these well-documented changes are either willfully ignorant or cynically short-sighted. There is a lot of money to be made in the climate-change denial business because people are only too happy to be told that the status quo can be maintained.

A treaty was recently signed in Paris that would improve the international cooperation needed to keep the planet from warming as much as currently projected. The new administration seems poised to scuttle the agreement. NASA has begun to place a huge emphasis on gathering and analyzing data on climate change in recent years, showing us pictures of what we are doing to the planet. The new administration is threatening to dismantle this valuable government service so that they can build a second home on the moon. Everyone knows that oil, gas and coal will eventually run out and need to be replaced with solar, wind, hydro, tidal and geothermal alternatives. The new administration would rather see them replaced after the climate has become uninhabitable for many birds. There is no way to end this article on a positive note.

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at To discover local birding opportunities visit

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