Just before autumn begins there are a few days when time seems to stand still. The wane of summer brings more than warm days and cool nights. Leaves, no longer emerald colored but rather pallid, await the brilliant color that comes with shorter days and frosty temperatures. Flocks of birds migrating south stop by and give us a brief glimpse of those that inhabit the north. Caterpillars seem to be everywhere and in a wide array of shapes and colors. The wooly bears are my favorite and this year they have a very narrow bronze stripe. Trees hold hard mast and bears, turkeys, white tailed deer and a host of rodents await the acorns, beechnuts, and hickory nuts that may fall to the earth. The brook by our house is running slowly, still shallow from the dry summer. The channel will soon run full as autumn rains revive the free flowing stream. And I, quiet with my thoughts, reflect on the summer past and the winter to come.
Although it is unwise to ever jump to conclusions the dry summer, especially in the mid-west, brought sincere trepidation into my heart as climate change appears to be more apparent and very real. We set another global temperature record last year (since we’ve been recording such things) and this year promises to be warmer than the last. When climate temperatures vary beyond normal conditions ecosystems become stressed. Given we live in a temperate forest ecosystem that supports deciduous trees that need both warm and cold weather our ecosystem is slightly more flexible than one that has a steady unvarying climate. Despite this it seems as though our forest is stressed these days. Seasonal drought can have temporary impacts on trees and long term drought can cause serious damage to forests. Worse, changing climates can create an entire set of cascading events that we still do not clearly understand. Mycorrhizal fungi in temperate forests needs long periods of frozen soils. If these fungi are damaged through long term warming than the symbiotic relationship between this organisms and the roots of the tree are degraded. The fungus in the soil breaks down nutrients and makes it more soluble, transportable, and useable to trees. The roots provide structure for the fungi. It is a perfect relationship. The alteration of this relationship through a warming climate does not bode well for long term stability. Unhealthy trees are more susceptible to pathogens, harmful fungi, and insects. More, if mature forests fail and large scale tree die back occurs than soils become warmer with more direct sun and even less supportive of the helpful fungi in the soil. It is a vicious circle.
And while it is true that some ecosystem will eventually replace the one that is here forests cannot get up and move. They migrate very slowly over thousands of years as seeds and nuts are dispersed primarily by wildlife but also by the wind. Presently climate warming is happening much faster than ecosystems, especially forests, can respond. As trees perish large areas of dead wood could emerge from trees that cannot make the adaptation. Sugar maples, because we are at the southern end of their range, could be one of the most impacted members of the forest community. And deadwood in our forests can make them more susceptible to fires and a disaster waiting to happen.
The degradation of deciduous forests can lead to major changes in wildlife use. Black bears need deep forests for habitat. Fisher have similar requirements. Many songbird species are absolutely dependent on deep forest habitat as are some of our larger birds such as ruffed grouse. And wild turkeys, who along with white tail deer, need a solid mix of forest and field may also be impacted by these potential dramatic changes.
It will take a perfect storm of politics, human determination, and unwavering will to turn the tide of climate change. We have already stored enough hydrocarbons for fuel to be used in the next decade to permanently alter our world. And we must remember that we impact not only ourselves but all of the wonderful ecosystems and the plants and animals that inhabit these fragile parts of Earth. When we degrade our own nest we degrade the tree that holds the nest.
And what can we do? Individually we can and should all cut our electric usage by 50%. Use LED light bulbs, use a clothes line to dry your clothes, turn off your electronics when you aren’t using them, and be aware of every electrical item in your house. We can all drive our cars or trucks less, car pool to work, and when buying a new vehicle buy the most energy efficient vehicle that we can afford. And when heating our homes we can turn down the thermometer, burn local fuels like wood and wood pellets, and make sure all your heating devices are running at peak efficiency. Collectively we can demand our representatives in both state and federal government support clean and environmentally friendly energy, pass mandatory energy conservation legislation, and provide credits to taxpayers and citizens (not corporations) to install green energy in our homes, maximize conservation measures, and upgrade our modes of transportation especially public transportation.
We are at the brink. It is now or never. We cannot pass this decision onto the next generation. We must be decisive and direct. Please think about this. It is the most serious issue that our civilization faces in these tumultuous times.
On this day the temperature is in the high 70′s. The sky is cobalt blue for as far as I can see. Tempered yellows, reds, and oranges have begun to dot the forested landscape of some of the distant hillsides. These splashes of color invoke memory. It is New England as we all wish to remember. And if we are lucky we will be blessed with the vivid colors of autumn this year. Our hillsides will be ablaze with the leaves of fire-orange sugar maples, crimson red maples, and the lemon-yellow white ash. I think about my family. My children are grown. And I desperately want them and future generations to have a world that is healthy and vibrant. Clean water, fresh air, healthy ecosystems, and a stable climate should not be too much to ask for. And if my children ever have kids of their own I want, more than anything else in the world, to be able to show them the wonders of the planet in the here and now rather than telling them “this is the way it used to be”. Is this to much to ask?
And these moments, when time stands still, it is a good time to make plans for the next season. Will it be like the seasons past where our future looked bright? Or will the next season be like none before with dark skies looming over the future of coming generations?
You decide. Our collective efforts can make a difference.
For those interested in energy conservation and the positive impacts that this has on climate change please go online and visit http://www.50waystohelp.com/ . There are a lot of realistic and helpful suggestions there that if implemented would make a huge difference.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in September of 2012.