Tag Archives: allison ludtke

Distinguishing the difference: Wacky weather & changing climate

Starting in September the whispers of “I hear it’s going to be a bad winter” begin. It’s the most wonderful – or awful – time of year in the Northeast, depending on who you ask and what month you ask them.  Snow, ice and the occasional blizzard fill the months between colorful leaves and blooming flowers. Some people embrace this weather, practicing outdoor activities and skiing, while others remain tucked away until the snow melts. Nowadays, it’s hard to pinpoint how early, or late that may be, even though we try! (Click here to read about ice out contests where people guess when ice out is going to be, and if this tells us anything about changing ice out patterns.)

Credit: MSNBC

Credit: MSNBC

Winter weather in the Northeast becomes wackier and more unpredictable every year. As many of us witnessed recently, a two-day blizzard with freezing temperatures can be followed by a 45-degree day. These kinds of swings can frustrate and confuse people, but what does this mean for the environment and how does it relate to overall patterns of climate change? Pinpointing the relationship between long-term climate change and short-term weather events can not only offer an explanation to our confusion it can potentially establish preventative actions.

…But why?!

In 2010 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) focused on winter climate studies in New England, gaining substantial evidence of hydrologic changes during the last 100 years, including trends toward earlier snowmelt runoff, a lower occurrence of river ice, and decreasing accumulation of snow on mountain regions.

Jon Elder Robison, 2011.  An unusually early Nor'easter hit the Northeast over Halloween.  Heavy snow weighed down trees that had not lost their leaves for the season, adding extra weight.  Twelve states lost power for most of a week.

Jon Elder Robison, 2011. An unusually early Nor’easter hit the Northeast over Halloween. Heavy snow weighed down trees that had not lost their leaves for the season, adding extra weight. Twelve states lost power for most of a week.

Scientists have determined during the past 50 years, there has been widespread warming of global temperature, ranging from 2-degrees C (F) in some areas, to 5.50 degrees C (F) in others. According to the EPA, since 1970, the average annual temperature rose by 2°F and the average winter temperature increased by 4°F in the Northeast. One of the key effects of warming temperatures is increased snowmelt runoff. Forested habitats near rivers and streams, such as the Connecticut River Watershed, are particularly affected. In these ecosystems, snow plays an important role in temperature regulation, while also converting atmospheric energy into heat. Snow cover manages soil warming until snow melts, establishing a temperature range for biological activity. It serves as an insulator for soil, and reduces the extreme effects vegetation face from low temperatures. Snow coverage protects vegetation from drying out in the winter and from erosion of tissues by ice crystals.

A 2006 study by the USGS found that the total number of days of ice in 16 New England rivers each year had declined significantly in recent decades.

Snowmelt and precipitation events have a major influence on the hydrology (properties and movement of water) and chemistry of surface waters. On average, snowmelt contributions to hydrology are slower, compared to light-moderate rainfall, but this increases as temperatures increase. Flooding can occur whenever the rate of water input exceeds the ability of the soil to absorb it or when the amount of water exceeds natural storage capacities in soil, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. The likelihood of snowmelt-related floods increases each year, and studies have been, and continue to be done in areas such as Appalachia (by the Northeast Regional Climate Center) to measure the risk.

Early snowmelt can also lead to reduced summer stream flow while affecting groundwater supplies, particularly recharge zones. Groundwater is crucial to our water supply. Approximately 32 percent of public water suppliers draw water from groundwater sources in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and approximately 40 percent of the population derives its drinking water from private wells.

Fish and wildlife face threats from warming temperatures and increased snowmelt as well. Salmon, for example, spawn in colder waters during the winter season. These changes can shift the salmon’s migration and spawning patterns, more likely negatively than positively.

These warming temperatures are also melting sea ice and glaciers in arctic regions, threatening the livelihood of polar bears, ranging from reduced access to food, increased cannibalism and higher drowning rates.

A Polar Bear struggles to gain footing on melting ice.

A Polar Bear struggles to gain footing on melting ice.

The relationship between the Canada Lynx, a listed species, and the snowshoe hare is also being affected by global warming. Lynx depend on hare as their main pray, but as temperatures warm, and snow melts earlier, the ecology of snow is changing. Some lynx are adapted to crusty snow, giving them an advantage. Fluffy snow gives hares an advantage. As temperatures rise, fluffy snow is becoming crusty in some areas, throwing off the balance of this lynx-hare relationship, and ultimately having a negative effect on both animals.

A few degrees and a week or two not only have a cascading impact on our lives, but the ecosystems that surround us. Changes in weather patterns may interrupt our daily lives, but changes in climate are lasting. A disruption in these natural cycles may seem “wacky” to us, but potential for severe, altering changes in the water systems, wildlife, and environment we depend on are at risk.

…Signing Off

On a side note, this wraps up my last blog post for my time as the Communications Intern for the Science Applications Department here at Region 5. I’d like to thank the USFWS for a great internship, and all of the followers for taking the time to read my blogs. I not only enjoyed writing these blogs about my interests and passions, but learned a great deal through my research on these topics. I hope you all took away something, whether it be an interesting fact, an inspiration to take part in a clean up like Source for Sea, or a newfound interest of environmental issues!

Many thanks!

Allison Ludtke 🙂

Weathering the storm

Allison Ludtke

I’m Allison Ludtke, and you’ll be hearing from me regularly over the next few months! I am a Student Conservation Association intern for Science Applications, focusing on telling stories about how we are working with partners to develop and apply science for landscape conservation across the Northeast.

When I am not serving as an intern, I am a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, double majoring in wildlife ecology and journalism while completing an honors capstone project specializing in narrative nonfiction. I am passionate about wildlife conservation and truly believe communication can make a difference in how we deal with major issues like climate change.

I grew up spending my summers on the Cape. When I traveled there for Thanksgiving, my family discussed the impending erosion many of their neighbors are facing. Living about one hundred yards from the beach, they joked that sooner than later they’ll own beachfront property. Extreme, yes, but unlikely, no. As sea levels rise with a changing climate, the geology of these areas change and their natural resilience to intense storms is threatened.

Imagine if your beach front “backyard” suddenly crumbled into the ocean, or the streets of your town filled with water. Imagine losing all of your belongings, photo albums and objects holding dear memories. More importantly, imagine if you were injured – or worse, a loved one or family member was killed from these natural impacts.

This is reality.

The recent one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy (October 29) came and went, but the destructive storm’s impact still lingers.

Flooded homes in Tuckerton, N.J., on Oct. 30 after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29. (US Coast Guard via AFP/Getty Images) Credit: Boston.com

Flooded homes in Tuckerton, N.J., on Oct. 30 after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29 (US Coast Guard via AFP/Getty Images)
Credit: Boston.com

It has been argued that warming ocean temperatures contributed to the strength and impact of Sandy. As oceans warm, tropical storms and hurricanes that gather heat and energy through contact with warm ocean waters become larger and more powerful.  In addition, as ocean water warms and expands, global sea levels rise. Increased melting of ice caps and glaciers also contribute to rising sea levels. Storm surge from hurricanes on top of these higher sea levels will add up to increased erosion and inundation of coastal communities.  Predicting at risk areas is crucial, yet difficult, as beaches, barriers, and marshes all respond differently to warming, rising seas and storms.

Long Island Sound, part of the Connecticut River Watershed, is a perfect example of these effects. Home to an estimated 8 million people, Long Island Sound is a hotspot for heavy storm damage, due to high storm surge flooding, coastal erosion and rising sea levels.. Scientists expect a sea level rise of approximately 4 feet or more by 2100 in this area. Coastal resilience tools have estimated billion dollar coasts in damages and interrupted business if preventative tools are not implemented.

Aerial view of Hurricane Sandy

Aerial view of Hurricane Sandy from NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite.
Credit: National Geographic

Most communities in the United States were built based on past rather than future trends. But, as storms like Hurricane Sandy devastate communities once thought to be safe, science is playing a key role in informing measures to protect human communities and help people and nature weather the storm.

The North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), Northeast Climate Science Center and U.S. Geological Survey have joined forces on an effort to identify areas along the Atlantic Coast likely to be affected by stronger storms and rising sea levels and areas likely to be the most resilient. Mapping these areas will help inform better management decisions, ranging from preventative action to protection during a storm event. It is likely that more storms like Sandy are heading this way, so it only makes sense to learn from past experiences and plan for the future.

Destinations like Cape Cod and Long Island are bound to change. Residents are likely to see their backyards disappearing and the walk to the beach becoming shorter, some areas sooner than others. The question is not IF anymore, but when.

Our job now is to adapt, plan, and prevent.

Landscape conservation by design

I’m Allison Ludtke, and you’ll be hearing from me regularly over the next few months. I am a Student Conservation Association intern for Science Applications, focusing on telling stories about how we are working with partners to develop and apply science for landscape conservation across the Northeast. When I am not serving as an intern, I am a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, double majoring in wildlife ecology and journalism while completing an honors capstone project specializing in narrative nonfiction. I am passionate about wildlife conservation and truly believe communication can make a difference in how we deal with major issues like climate change. My past experiences include fieldwork in South Africa focusing on lion, leopard and cheetah behavior, marine mammal rehabilitation of seals and turtles on Cape Cod, and writing for my college newspaper as well as about these experiences.

I’m Allison Ludtke, and you’ll be hearing from me regularly over the next few months. I am a Student Conservation Association intern for Science Applications, focusing on telling stories about how we are working with partners to develop and apply science for landscape conservation across the Northeast.

“Designing sustainable landscapes.” What does that mean to you?

Understanding the “what” and “how” of this phrase was difficult for me at first. Sure, the words sound simple, but what exactly is a sustainable landscape?

To find out more, I began with basic definitions.

Designing is technically defined as deciding upon the look and functioning of an object (typically) by making a detailed drawing of it. I associate the word design with planning, visualizing and ultimately, implementing.

Sustainable is defined as being able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Although a word with vast, subjective definitions, I think of it as the likelihood to withstand conditions for future generations.

Landscape is defined as a combination of physical and living elements forming a larger ecosystem. All parts of a landscape are connected, from the wildlife to the forestry, to the water availability and soil. If one aspect is changed, all are affected.

All of these elements come together in the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project supported by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Led by Dr. Kevin McGarigal, a professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the project aims to conserve landscapes that provide diverse habitats and serve a variety of purposes- ranging from species habitats to erosion control. The end result is a model of landscape change that assesses ecological consequences and designs that prioritize conservation throughout the Northeast.

Designing Sustainable Landscapes began in October 2010 by developing and testing approaches in pilot watersheds, including models of wildlife habitats and ecosystems.  Examples of species represented by habitat models include black bear, diamond-backed terrapin, ruffed grouse, and red-shouldered hawk. Species are chosen based on their potential to represent multiple species with similar habitat needs.

Areas are prioritized based both on long-term predictions of how well species and ecosystems will cope with disturbances, such as climate change. McGarigal says there are three key components:landscape change, landscape assessment, and landscape conservation design.

DSLmodels

Designing Sustainable Landscapes species models for New England and the Hudson Valley.

The crucial question in all of this is where do humans fit into the landscape? More importantly, can they undo the damage already done? Is it realistic to begin to design an idealized form of nature? Ultimately, do we have any other choice in an environment permanently changed by human behavior?

”Conservation design is really about being proactive,” McGarigal says “We can’t continue to approach conservation reactively. We need to preserve and maintain the landscape, while we still can.”

Witnessing the coverage of the recent typhoon in the Philippines prompted me to reflect on how crucial this kind of future planning is for nature and people. As climate change progresses, sea levels rise, and natural disasters become the norm rather than the exception, it is our job to plan ahead. Plan for resiliency. Plan for the physical, social and economic effects of climate change. Plan for landscapes that will be here decades from now, and an environment future generations will have the opportunity to know, enjoy, and treasure.

Dr. McGarigal and I discussed how we [humans] don’t often anticipate problems very well, but respond once the threat is great enough. McGarigal says it is now time to “think strategically” and focus on “what we can do today to affect long-term outcomes.”