“As ocean temperatures rise, marine species are moving away from their warming and acidifying habitats to seek colder waters. There is, in effect, a mass migration of sea life towards the poles.”
– Zoë Schlanger
A couple of years ago while vacationing on the Oregon Coast, we were startled by the tsunami alarms going off throughout the town, due to an offshore earthquake. Directed to evacuate our beachfront house, we drove with hundreds of others up to higher ground where we anxiously watched for the big wave.
Most of us had quickly grabbed shoes, phones, laptops and anything very valuable, but one of the kids in our party very planfully tossed all of her books into a wheely bag and grabbed a few bags of chips and some soda pop. As we waited in the crowd, several nearby adults eyed that kid greedily as she shared the chips with us. I kicked myself for not grabbing a six-pack of beer before we left and contemplated whether we should auction off one of her bags of chips. (Note: if you have to evacuate, be sure to take bottles of water, beverage and food of your choice plus a roll of toilet paper.)
Two years later, the alarm sounded again, this time due to a tornado on the beach a few miles south of town. Both the tornado and tsunami (which never materialized) are historically extremely rare in this area. A rogue wave a few years before drove a three-foot diameter log through the plate glass windows in the house, situated over ten feet above the beach.
Things today are not necessarily as they were historically. The climate is changing, regardless of whether anyone thinks it is just political or whether it is caused by humans. We can try to deny the facts, but nevertheless, the climate, she is achangin’. Planet-wide, plants, animals and humans are moving to more habitable places.
Nadia Popovich reports on a National Climate Assessment performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, “’Hardiness zones ‘are creeping north systemically to higher latitudes and elevations,’ said Russell Vose, who leads the Analysis and Synthesis Branch in NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. That means ‘you can probably grow some things farther north than you used to be able to,’ he said. (But, he added, you still can’t ‘plant a banana tree outside in Central Park.’)”
Shifting hardiness zones affect growing conditions that over time may affect agriculture and food production. A major concern is that these shifts, coupled with unstable climate extremes such as storms and drought, will create food shortages and cause mass human and animal migration.
Animals are already reacting to the climate change. Migration patterns have been disrupted among various species of birds and insects, due to the habitat changes created by shifting climate. Zoë Schlanger notes that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported, “These changes are not purely geographic; marine animals that show up in new habitats also interface with the marine life around them differently. Other climate-driven ocean changes, like reduced oxygen supply and ocean acidification, are rearranging life as well. ‘Altered interactions between species have caused cascading impacts on ecosystem structure and functioning,’ the IPCC writes.”
Climate change is not always a gradual process, but triggers weather extremes, such as droughts, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. Gilbert M. Gaul reports, “Federal data show that damage from hurricanes is increasing dramatically, topping nearly $750 billion dollars in the last two decades, or about two-thirds of all U.S. hurricane damage in the last century. That’s far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined, with three catastrophic hurricanes in 2017 — Harvey, Maria, and Irma — alone resulting in $300 billion in damage.”
“Now, with the planet warming, sea levels rising, and oceans heating up, providing more fuel, hurricanes are likely to grow even larger and more destructive in the future, says Kerry Emanuel, one of the leading atmospheric scientists and hurricane experts, based at MIT. By the next century, a Category 5 hurricane — such as Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas this week — could go from being a one-in-800-year storm to a one-in-80-year storm. Unsurprisingly, bigger hurricanes cause more damage, and with more property than ever lining the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the risk of future epochal storms is only likely to increase.”
It’s not just the plants and animals that are moving, though. People, experiencing greater damage from catastrophic weather, are also relocating to safer areas. Brian Kahn notes that “The U.S. is slowly being gripped by a flooding crisis as seas rise and waterways overflow with ever more alarming frequency. An idea at the forefront for how to help Americans cope is so-called managed retreat, a process of moving away from affected areas and letting former neighborhoods return to nature… More than 40,000 households have been bought out by the federal government over the past three decades.”
People moving away from or avoiding potentially affected areas along the coasts and waterways has caused local property values to decrease and some social disruption. And it will likely get worse with time.
Climate change deniers need to understand that whether they agree or not, plants, animals and people are seeing the change and responding. We can sit back and watch, or maybe find ways to mitigate some of the effects. Not everyone will have the luxury of moving to higher ground or more hospitable climes.
Remember though, pack water, food and beer when you go.
Gilbert M. Gaul, On the Alabama Coast, the Unluckiest Island in America, September 5, 2019, YaleEnvironment 360
Brian Kahn, Americans Are Already Moving Away From the Rising Water’s Edge, October 11, 2019, Earther Newsletter
Nadia Popovich, How Climate Change May Affect the Plants in Your Yard, May 23, 2019, New York Times
Zoë Schlanger, Sea Creatures Are Moving Towards the Poles at a Rate of 32 Miles Per Decade, September 25, 2019, Quartz