wet in wicken
- 4 Jun 06, 10:01 PM
Hello fellow bloggers,
Well, as Julian told you, we made it to Wicken Fen and in spite of his assurances ended up getting more than a little damp. Fortunately, the rain didn’t come until after the birds had provided us with a splendid dawn chorus. I’ve heard cuckoos before, but never in such numbers, sparring over the airwaves about who has the best patch. It was awesome, well worth getting up at 4am for.
Cuckoos are some of the many migrant birds that Wicken houses, and it was fascinating to hear about how they and their fellow long-distance travellers might be affected by climatic shifts in different parts of their travels.
Speaking of long-distance travels, some of you have mentioned that we on the PEuT team seem to be planning to use up a fair amount of jet fuel to make this series, and have said that this isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. You’re right of course. But first of all, I don’t think you should assume anything about my (or the series’) “agenda”. Having spent more than a decade researching and writing about climate change I have now concluded, along with most of the world’s climate scientists, that global warming is upon us, that some changes are inevitable, and others are probably still avoidable if we decide to take certain steps. I also believe that there will be winners and losers from both the inevitable change, and the possible further changes that might follow.
Part of the reason for this series is to investigate some of the winners and losers. We learned at Wicken, for instance, that rising sea level might turn some of the coastal wetlands of the UK into salt marshes. Well ok, wetlands are a rich and varied ecosystem, but salt marshes aren’t too shabby. And even if the biodiversity is reduced, what’s so great about biodiversity? Life on Earth was no bigger than a pinhead for billions of years, with only a handful of different species of microbes to write about.
It was in this context that I asked Bill Adams about why he was worried about disappearing species, and I must admit that his answer was a good one. Julian’s already told you what he said: “The first rule of intelligent meddling is to keep all the pieces”. I like the image this conjures up of humanity putting all the bits of an engine on the table, letting the carburettor fall off onto the floor and wondering why the rest doesn’t work any more when it’s reassembled.
There’s nothing inherently special about biodiversity as far as the Earth’s concerned but we do have a rather subtle, intricate and interesting system now, and one that we humans have learned to rely on. Back to my previous comments that the Earth doesn’t care what we do to it, but we humans might want to stop and think about why we care. I’m still in the process of doing this. I’ve started to think that excessive carbon emissions might be a bad idea, and that gives me pause when it comes to my occasional long flights. So far, I’m balancing this against the point that my journeys are to investigate the issues, and put forward the conclusions to a wider audience.
While we’re on the subject of your comments, they’re great, please do keep them coming. By the way, I wanted to respond to one specific comment. I mentioned that certain Antarctic animals are threatened by the loss of sea ice and one well-read blogger pointed out a paper suggesting that sea ice around Antarctica has actually been increasing over recent years. Yes, Jay Zwally (who is an excellent scientist) does seem to show that. (Zwally, H.J., Comiso, J.C., Parkinson, C.L. Cavalieri, D.J. and Gloersen, P. (2002). "Variability of Antarctic sea ice 1979-1998". Journal of Geophysical Research 107: 10.1029/2000). But that paper is also a testament to how dangerous it can be to draw conclusions from short time series, in a system that has so much natural variability. It’s not Jay’s fault—the satellites simply haven’t been around for very long. But do check out a very clever paper by Australian researchers that uses clues from ice core to try to extend the satellite record backwards in time. They find that if you take the long view, sea ice does indeed seem to have decreases around Antarctica over the past 50 years. (Ref: M. A. J. Curran et al., Science vol 302 no 5648, pp 1203-1206, 14 November 2003)
As for the future, nobody knows what will happen next. Most general circulation models predict that Antarctic sea ice will continue to disappear as the earth warms, though they predict it will disappear even more quickly in the ultra-sensitive Arctic. Even if the models are wrong, increases in sea ice would be almost as bad for my little feathered friend. A couple of years ago, a massive iceberg rammed itself into one end of the bay near McMurdo station on Ross island. This meant that the summer sea ice stretched much farther than usual, and the little Adelie penguins had to march 50 kilometres to the ice edge to find their food. They did it with dogged determination, but most of their chicks that year died.