There has been a lot of talk about the world ending this year. The Mayan calendar, which was developed more than 2,500 years ago, is an extremely accurate calendar that charts time and the movements of stars and planets. This calendar runs out on Dec. 21, 2012. There have been some who have interpreted this to mean the world will end on this date. This is one of the predictions commonly referred to as a doomsday forecast. In honor of this unusual event, this is the first of a three-part series where we will examine wildlife doomsday scenarios prior to Dec. 21, 2012.
The earth has experienced doomsdays before. Scientists report the earth has endured volcanic blowouts, been completely submerged by water, struck by giant meteors and gone through multiple ice ages, but we currently have abundant life on this planet-or do we? Earlier this year, there were more than 20,000 wildlife species listed as threatened with extinction around the globe. Over the next two weeks, I am going to briefly examine a kind of wildlife doomsday. This will not have anything to do with planetary alignments, a shift in the earth’s magnetic poles or solar flares; in fact nothing that originates outside our atmosphere. I am going to examine nature turning on itself as a result of climate change.
First, I need to clarify that I am not talking about global warming. For some reason, there has been an ongoing debate about the validity of the claim that global temperatures are increasing. I am not interested in trying to take a side in that argument. I am going to talk about current and forecasted climate change. There is no question that weather has changed over the course of decades. According to a study done by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our annual average temperature rose by 1.1 degree Fahrenheit from 1950 to 2006. This may not seem like much to humans whose lives revolve around buildings and vehicles with heating and air conditioning, but it has a notable impact on the ecosystem. Wintertime temperatures have seen an average increase of 2.5 degrees F. The state is seeing fewer extended subzero stretches, and overnight temperatures have become milder. Statewide, the first fall freeze occurs almost a week later than it did in 1950. Lakes are freezing over later and opening up earlier. The growing season is slowly increasing. These changes all affect wildlife.
Precipitation in the form of rain and snowfall has changed, too. In the far north and northwestern areas of the state (basically north of Hwy. 70), there has been a significant decrease in precipitation, as much as four inches lower than 1950. South of Hwy. 70, precipitation has increased, one to two inches in Rhinelander but much higher in west central and southern Wisconsin, as high as seven inches more than 1950. The way that this rain and snowfall comes has changed as well. The storms occur less often, but when they do happen, there is a lot more rain or snow out of them.
These changes are not predictions, they are recorded history. Whether you think it is part of a natural cycle or caused by humans, industry, pollution or other less natural triggers, observed weather has changed. This means the climate of Wisconsin has changed and will continue to change. This topic has taken center stage with many resource agencies, who have come together to try to determine how to manage fish, wildlife and plant species in the 21st century in the face of these climate changes. Predicting the weather for the next week is a challenge, not to mention the next 50 years. However, we will look further into what the forecasted climate in Wisconsin may be according to our own Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and what effects we could see on wildlife.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.