Darwin’s Dilemma in the Comforted Forest

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Darwin’s Dilemma in the Comforted Forest

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Graph of Climate Change 1975-2007

The world’s climate is warming. The pace of change is practically undetectable, a radical transformation only seen by an accumulation of degrees. We notice an incremental loss of arctic ice, a rise in sea level measured in millimeters, the power of a hurricane intensified by a few miles per hour. Yet the sky has not fallen, and our lives have not been impaired in a way yet that would demand that we care.

We respond well to catastrophe. Flood waters start lapping at the door and we are quick to bail. Earthquakes, avalanches, forest fires, and volcanoes inspire action. Climate change inspires political bickering.

In politics denial is part of the game. In business denial is a part of the profit. Political leaders deny climate change to kneecap an opponent that actually understands the science and has the chutzpah to say so. Business leaders deny climate change to avoid responsibility when science doesn’t bend to their favor.

Not all businesses are deniers. Not all political leaders are deniers. But enough of each brings meaningful efforts to ameliorate the impacts of climate change to the current stalemate. I leave it to you to judge who is pulling and who is pushing back.

Yes, the world’s climate is changing. There are legitimate debates over causation. Is climate change due to a natural process or the hand of man? Most of the science points to man. Political and business leaders point to the hand of God.

Sources of CO2 Emissions

The climate has changed before. Only 15,000 years ago we were coming out of an ice age. But only in catastrophic times has the climate changed so rapidly. A volcanic eruption may cool the earth, but only for a brief moment. An epoch length climate change leads to a wholesale substitution in life’s game.

The current climate change is forcing species to adapt and evolve in a geological nanosecond. Life has evolved on this planet at a glacial, not a meteoric, pace. We cannot rely on Darwin’s survival of the fittest. There simply isn’t enough time.

Deniers, those unalterably opposed to the notions of evolution or climate change, should travel to an area where both are obvious. I recommend the Dominican Republic. Island biogeography is an ideal milieu for considering evolution and the ways in which climate change may affect those that have evolved to this moment in time.

Hispaniola (the island divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti) is a continent turned on end. Latitude is vertical here. The elevation rises from sea level to over 3000 meters in a short distance, and life zones are measured by meters of elevation rather than kilometers north or south.

Number of Lobbyists on Climate Change by Sector

Hispaniola comprises an area of less than 75,800 sq km, smaller than the state of Maine and less than half the size of Cuba. Yet elevation splays life in more than one direction. An organism that finds its way to an island such as Hispaniola often radiates into niches and nooks that are arrayed along the vertical as well as horizontal axis. The result is endemism.

Consider the Caribbean. According to the CEPF (Critical Ecosytems Partnership Fund),

The Caribbean Islands Hotspot supports a wealth of biodiversity within its diverse terrestrial ecosystems, with a high proportion of endemicity making the region biologically unique. It includes about 11,000 plant species, of which 72 percent are endemics. For vertebrates, high proportions of endemic species characterize the herpetofauna (100 percent of 189 amphibian species and 95 percent of 520 reptile species), likely due to their low dispersal rates, in contrast to the more mobile birds (26 percent of 564 species) and mammals (74 percent of 69 species, most of which are bats).

Evolution, the fundamental process first glimpsed (or at least understood) by Darwin, is obvious here. You will only miss it if you choose to. One butterfly species flits to the island and radiates into 40. One antecedent anole becomes a dozen. Each fits into it own niche, a balance of factors such as elevation, temperature, rainfall, and competitive exclusion. Each dances to Darwin’s music.

Bryophytes Along the Trail Between Canto del Jilguero and Cachote

Climate change reshapes these factors. A niche once ideal for a particular species becomes inhospitable. The impact does not need to be direct. A rising temperature may not directly affect a particular Calisto butterfly, but the loss of a critical food plant may.

Whether the change brings lower rainfall, higher rainfall, lower mean temperatures, higher mean temperatures, lower humidity, or higher humidity, all reshuffle the cards. The pace of our climate change does not leave these endemics time to adapt and evolve. We are asking them to remake themselves overnight.

Consider only one of these factors – moisture. A warming climate heats the oceans, and ocean temperature shapes cloud formation and rainfall. El Nino and La Nina are examples. Whether rainfall increases or decreases isn’t the point. What is critical is the length of time for which these changes are felt.

I recently visited the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental near Cachote. This high-elevation forest (over 2100 meters) is odd. Cachote has elements of cloud forest, with moisture transported by the fog and mist that frequently envelops the highlands. Yet heavy rain falls here as well, nourishing elements of a broad-leafed rainforest.

There is a short trail, developed and maintained by the community, that connects our camp (Canto del Jilguero) to Cachote. The forest floor is carpeted in bryophytes.

Frog Photographed Near Our Camp at Canto del Jilguero in the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental

The mosses sponge the moisture from the mist and fog creeping through the forest. The moisture coalesces as droplets on the plants, eventually falling ever so slowly to the forest floor. Water that would otherwise be lost is trapped by plants no higher than my shoelaces.

The water recharges the springs that feed the creeks and rivers in this watershed. The watershed supplies the communities below. The water needed by Dominicans begins as one drop on the leaf of an obscure moss.

Now let’s consider a scenario where a changing climate reduces the moisture flowing across these mountains from the Caribbean. The mosses trap less moisture, the flow in the creeks and streams is reduced, and the communities below find themselves without water to drink.

Of course this focus is on the fate of humans. But every organism that has evolved in these conditions is impacted as well. Whether frog, damselfly, snake, butterfly, or bird, each is subject to the same ecological conditions and constraints.

These same climate changes will impact agriculture, fisheries, industries, communities, as well as ecologies. The risk is to more than an obscure butterfly. We may love to see the jilguero or the barrancoli, but they are inextricably glued to the butterflies, anoles, orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and us. We share a common fate; we float through the voids of space on the same star dust.

Anole Endemic to the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental near Cachote

Evolution is fact. Climate change is fact. By fact I mean that the preponderance of evidence supports their existence. The two are careening down the field on a crash course. The world is watching the lead up in slo-mo, trying to avert its gaze and pretending that it can ignore the helmet-to-helmet collision that will inevitably come.

Some deny from ignorance. Some deny from strategy. Some deny from greed. No matter the rationale, denial may be a death sentence for Cachote and the Sierra de Bahoruco Oriental. The only question is who and what is able to adjust to the changes thrust upon them, and who disappears with the mists that no longer comfort the forest?

Aves Caribe is being organized to connect people to the birds of the Caribbean. We want people to care about Caribbean birds, to be concerned about their fates, and to enjoy their existence. Our trail is also an interpretive platform, and, as Freeman Tilden said, the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. Climate change is a threat of our time, one whose potential impacts are easily seen and understood in the Caribbean. To be concerned about Caribbean birds requires that we be concerned about the effects of climate change, and we will continue address the implications as we extend the trail from Bermuda to Trinidad.

Caribbean Birding Trail

Images from the Dominican Republic


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