This past year, our country was broiled by the hottest year ever. The southwest has continued in the midst of a decade-long drought that climate scientists say is the new normal; western states continued to set records for wildfires, punctuated by the Waldo Canyon inferno, the most expensive in Colorado history; and farmers in over half the counties in the United States became eligible for disaster assistance because of drought.
Scientists tell us we have a chance to curb the impacts of climate change -- but will we act fast enough?
What's clear right now is that climate change is the biggest threat to America's wildlife this century. A new report from the National Wildlife Federation documents adverse impacts to wildlife all across our country (nwf.org/climatecrisis).
Here in Pennsylvania, repeat kills of smallmouth bass have decimated the fishery in nearly 100 miles of the middle Susquehanna River. In 2005, which was then the hottest year on record, my two sons and I were fishing the Susquehanna on our annual float trip. That weekend, we saw hundreds of fingerling bass floating downstream, killed by a common soil and water bacteria called Columnaris.
Six miles above Harrisburg I took a water temperature of 91 degrees. We didn't know it at the time, but what we were witnessing was the beginning of a nearly annual kill of smallmouth. For the past seven years, high water temperatures have lowered oxygen levels in the river, stressing the bass and making them susceptible to bacterial infection.
The agencies are exerting every effort to determine what is killing these fish, but the exact cause remains elusive. There is no question the bass are being affected by multiple stressors, like dissolved inorganic phosphorous. But the fact is, the fish started dying in the hottest year in the hottest decade on record, and has continued nearly every year since. Tragically, the bass fishery in nearly 100 miles of the middle Susquehanna River has collapsed. It appears that climate change may be the final straw for these fish.
The same climate-fueled stressors affecting the bass are killing Minnesota's iconic big game animal, the moose. The state's northwest population has plummeted from over 4,000 in 1980, to less than 100 today, while the northeast population has dropped from 8,840 animals to about 2,700. The decline has been so dramatic and precipitous that Minnesota cancelled the fall moose-hunting season indefinitely.
Moreover, because winters are milder and growing seasons longer, insect pest populations have exploded. It's not unusual now to find moose with over 70,000 ticks embedded in them. In a desperate attempt to rid themselves of ticks, some moose will literally rub themselves raw, wiping off the hair that protects them from the cold during winter.
Brook trout are an iconic species in Pennsylvania, and they too are in trouble. According to many fishery scientists, if the temperature goes up as climate scientists forecast, trout will be largely eliminated from the northeast and greatly diminished out west.
Steve Sywensky, owner of Fly Fishers Paradise in State College, reports that in the last decade the date which aquatic insect hatches occur has changed dramatically, adversely affecting fly-fishing and his business. Fly fishers enjoy casting to fish rising to feed on insect hatches. However, since the hatches have changed, interest in the sport has declined, causing a distinct drop in business and shortening his "busy" season. Not only does this impact his business, it also reduces tourism dollars used to purchase food, lodging, etc. in Centre County.
Out west, high water temperatures last year forced natural resource agencies to close trophy trout water in Yellowstone National Park, Montana and Colorado. These closures are now becoming more like an annual event. A recent study found that the number of thermally stressed days trout experience in the world-class Madison River tripled between 1980 and today.
What is especially alarming about these impacts, is that all of this is occurring with just a 1.5 degree temperature increase over the last 100 years. If we continue burning fossil fuels at our present rate, climate scientists forecast temperature increases of 7 degrees to 11 degrees in just 80 years. At this rate, our kids and grandkids will never get to enjoy the great outdoor opportunities that our generation has been so blessed to have.
Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. We know what's causing these impacts on wildlife and we know what needs to be done to chart a better course for the future. We need to say no to dirty energy choices like coal and tar sands, while transitioning to clean, more secure energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal that will help us reduce carbon pollution by 50 percent by 2030.
Moving to renewable energy will not only help protect our natural resources, but give our families better energy choices and put our people back to work building made in America solutions to our energy needs.
All we need is for our elected representatives to put a price on carbon pollution so that we can begin the transition to our clean energy future.
-- Ed Perry is the Penn sylvania outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.