Look to the forest
By Jim Poling
Published March 27, 2018
Spring came in February. Winter followed in March. What April will bring is anyone’s guess.
This winter’s wild weather swings confirm for many that our climate is changing drastically. Probably, but it is not quite that simple.
Climate change can’t be determined by a several weeks of unusually warm temperatures in February and far below freezing temperatures on the first official days of spring.
Climate and weather are distinctly different. Weather is what you see and feel when you step outside today. Climate is the average of weather patterns over a long period of time – years, not days, weeks or even months.
One way to get better informed about climate change is to look at how our environment and its biodiversity are changing. An interesting place to look for that change is in a forest.
The forest I know best has undergone significant change in recent times. Above normal rainfall has softened soils, weakening tree root grips and making them more susceptible to wind damage.
Winds have become more frequent and stronger. Healthy oaks clinging to thin soils on rocky ridges have been upended.
Even in the more protected areas I can find hearty evergreens, birches and poplars toppled or bent over by unusually strong winds.
A bigger worry for the forest is non-native invasive bugs bringing diseases. Beech bark disease is moving through Ontario, attacking and killing mature beech trees whose nuts are an important food source for bears. Some experts believe beech bark disease could wipe out beech trees in Haliburton and Muskoka.
Emerald ash borers from Asia have devastated ash populations in southern Ontario and are moving north. Ash tree species are on the brink of extinction.
Ticks carrying Lyme disease also are spreading into forests they have not occupied before. There were 987 Canadian cases of Lyme disease reported in 2016, a huge increase from the 144 reported in 2009.
Ontario’s climate is becoming wetter and warmer with temperatures expected to increase more, especially in northern areas. The warming is creating longer growing seasons that are changing the life patterns of some plants, animals and insects.
For instance, a new species of flying squirrel is believed to be the result of warming temperatures in Ontario. Warmer temperatures are expanding the range of the southern flying squirrel, moving it further into the range of the larger northern flying squirrel. The two species have been mating, creating a hybrid.
Meanwhile, whiskey jack (gray jay) populations have declined as much as 50 per cent in the last 40 years, notably in Algonquin Park, which is the southern limit of their range. These jays cache winter food supplies in tree bark and warmer autumns and warm bursts in winter can spoil their food caches and are believed to be one factor in their decline.
Warmer temperatures are changing bird migration patterns and bird ranges. Some birds are moving north, or to higher elevations, to keep within their preferred temperature ranges.
The forest has much to tell about climate change and bird populations. The first thing you notice in many forests is the scarcity of birds. Sight and sound of birds in the forest have been declining at an alarming rate.
A National Audubon Society study has found that one third of North America’s wintering bird populations have declined since 1966. That follows another study that says one-third of all North American bird species face extinction.
Most of us don’t need studies and statistics to tell us that bird populations are declining. We simply have to walk into the forest, or step out into our own back yards. The birds just are not there in the numbers we used to see.
Concerns about changing climate go beyond birds and dying trees, however. Everything in nature is connected, including the all powerful and domineering human species. Something changes and there are consequences for other things.
So the debate now should not be about whether climate change is real, how severe or mild it might be, or what causes it. The discussion should centre on the change now seen in the environment and its biodiversity and what, if anything, we can do about that.