Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Alarming Loss of Species in Protected Forests

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Tropical  forest, Malaysia Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia CommonsTropical forest, Malaysia: Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia Commons

I was interested to read a new paper in the science journal Nature this week. Not least because it was co-authored by more than 200 scientists from around the world—a veritable who's-who of researchers from the world of tropical forest ecology.

The gist of the paper is alarming:

  1. The rapid disruption of tropical forests worldwide probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other force today.
  2. The best hope lies in protected areas.
  3. Yet many protected areas are not effectively protecting biodiversity.

The authors write:

Our analysis reveals great variation in reserve 'health:' about half of all reserves have been effective or performed passably, but the rest are experiencing an erosion of biodiversity that is often alarmingly widespread taxonomically and functionally.

Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012 DOI:10.1038/nature11318Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas, for selected environmental drivers. The bars show percentage of reserves with improving vs worsening conditions: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012, DOI:10.1038/nature11318

The authors studied more than 30 different categories of species—from trees and butterflies to primates and large predators—in protected areas across the tropics in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. They calculated how these groups have fared in recent decades and identified the drivers of environmental change.

Lead author William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama told me:

One of the things our study demonstrated was a sort of "mirror effect"—that the changes inside vs. outside [the reserves] tend to be positively correlated.

In other words, the reserves are only as strong as the lands surrounding them. And their power to protect biodiversity—that is, a full, healthy spectrum of lifeforms from the smallest to the largest—is threatened by activities on their borders, particularly from the illegal encroachment of colonists, hunters, and loggers.  

Jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe authors found that some guilds—that is, ecological groups of plants and animals—were more at risk than others. The most sensitive guilds included apex predators, large non-predatory vertebrates, bats, stream-dwelling amphibians, terrestrial amphibians, lizards and larger reptiles, non-venomous snakes, freshwater fish, large-seeded old-growth trees, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, like orchids), and ecological specialists.

Several other groups were somewhat less vulnerable, including primates, understory insectivorous birds, large frugivorous [fruit-eating] birds, raptorial birds [birds of prey], venomous snakes, species that require tree cavities, and migratory species. In addition, five groups increased markedly in abundance in the reserves, including pioneer and generalist trees, lianas and vines, invasive animals, invasive plants and human diseases.

Considering that the most endangered species are living in protected areas that are themselves embedded in extremely degraded landscapes, then the picture looks even gloomier.

Juvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia CommonsJuvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia Commons

But in my article in the May/June 2012 issue of Mother Jones, Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save an Ecosystem?, I wrote about the need to spend more time discussing and dissecting success stories in conservation biology. As things stand, the bad news stories overwhelm us and threaten to defeat our willpower and continued efforts.

So I asked Laurance, if we were to turn his paper around for a moment, what can we say is working in the 50 percent of reserves that are doing a decent job protecting biodiversity? His answer:

In very general terms, the 50 percent of reserves that were doing relatively well had (1) better on-the-ground protection inside the reserve, and (2) had suffered less-intense changes outside the reserve. 

Thus the paper presents a blueprint of what to do, as well as what not to do, if we want to maintain Earth's biodiversity in a rapidly changing world. The authors conclude:

Protected areas are a cornerstone of efforts to conserve tropical biodiversity. It is not our intent to diminish their crucial role but to highlight growing challenges that could threaten their success. The vital ecological functions of wildlife habitats surrounding protected areas create an imperative, wherever possible, to establish sizeable buffer zones around reserves, maintain substantial reserve connectivity to other forest areas and promote lower-impact land uses near reserves by engaging and benefiting local communities. A focus on managing both external and internal threats should also increase the resilience of biodiversity in reserves to potentially serious climatic change in the future.

The paper:

  • William F. Laurance, et al. Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature (2012). DOI:10.1038/nature11318

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Greenland's Summer Mega Melt

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 12:39 PM EDT

 Extent of surface melt over Greenland's ice sheet on July 8, 2012 (left) and July 12, 2012 (right), melting shown in pink: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences LaboratoryExtent of surface melt over Greenland's ice sheet on 08 July 2012 (left) and 12 July 2012 (right), melting shown in pink: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory Satellites recorded an unprecedented rate of ice sheet melt in Greenland this month. Over the course of four days in July virtually the entire surface melted—an area larger than at any time in more than 30 years of satellite observations.

On average about half the surface area of the ice sheet melts in summer. But between 08 and 12 July 2012 the melt spread from 40 percent to 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet.

A researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was analyzing radar data from the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Oceansat-2 satellite last week when he noticed that most of Greenland appeared to be melting.

The extreme melt coincided with a heat dome over Greenland—one of a series of unusually strong ridges of warm air dominating Greenland's weather since May. Each successive ridge has been stronger than the previous one this summer.

Atmopsheric carbon dioxide measurements at Summit, Greenland, 1985-2010: NOAA | Earth System Reserach LaboratoryAtmospheric carbon dioxide measurements at Summit, Greenland, 1996-2010: NOAA | Earth System Research Laboratory

Even the NOAA observatory Summit Station in central Greenland—2 miles (3.2 kilometers) above sea level and near the highest point of the ice sheet—showed signs of melt. Such widespread thawing has not occurred since 1889, according to ice-core analyses.

"Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time," said Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data. "But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome." 

Climate Change Driving Salmon Evolution

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha): NOAA | Fisheries ServicePink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha): NOAA | Fisheries ServiceTwo of our hottest-button topics—climate change and evolution—are now linked by genetic research on migrating salmon.

The results, published in a new paper in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, report on groundbreaking evidence that climate change is driving the evolution of pink salmon in Alaska.

DNA data clearly show a genetic selection for earlier migrating fish during the last three decades.

This is particularly interesting because although there are many observations of earlier migrations among a variety of species in response to a warming climate, it's not clear whether this is a result of behavioral adaptation or genetic change or both.

Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population: Ryan P. Kovach, et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population. Frequency of late migration marker allele (black diamond) and a control allele (white circle): Ryan P. Kovach, et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158

The authors drew on an archive of genetic data for pink salmon dating back to the 1970s, when Auke Creek, Alaska, hosted two genetically distinct populations that migrated at different times: early and late. The archive included the work of a close collaborator, who selectively bred late-migrating fish in Auke Creek with a genetic marker.

Through the 1980s, between 27 and 39 percent of Auke Creek migrators bore the genetic marker of late migrators. But in 1989 the marker began to rapidly disappear. By 2011 it was effectively gone—present in only about 5 percent of the fish.

Today it's no longer possible to distinguish the early migrators from the late migrators by the frequency of the genetic marker in the population.

Why? From the paper:

Although we do not know the specific selective pressures that led to earlier migration timing in this population, stream temperatures during peak migration timing in 1989 were the second highest on record, and we observed substantial genetic changes... in the progeny from this spawning generation. Migrating pink salmon appear to avoid high stream temperatures; given the trend in migration timing, changes in the genetic marker and increasing stream temperatures in Auke Creek, it appears that earlier-migrating fish may have higher fitness in warmer years... and there is evidence that early-migrating adult fish are adapted to warmer conditions at multiple life stages and life-history events (e.g. juvenile developmental rates and migration timing, and adult migration timing, lifespan and breeding date).

Auke Bay, Alaska: endora57 | Kathy Neufeld via FlickrAuke Bay, Alaska: endora57 | Kathy Neufeld via Flickr

The selection for a different trait—in this case earlier migration—has implications for overall genetic diversity:

Although microevolution may have allowed this population to successfully track environmental change, it may have come at the cost of a decrease of within-population biocomplexity—the loss of the late run. This is not a surprising result; by definition, directional selection will decrease genetic variation. However, it does highlight the importance of maintaining sufficient genetic and phenotypic variation within populations in order for them to have the ability to respond to environmental change.

And that ties in with research I reported on recently here that extinctions are just as nasty as global warming in driving global change. So the new salmon work implies, at least to me, that there may also be positive feedback loops developing between warming temperatures, dwindling biocomplexity, dwindling biodiversity, and human wellbeing.

The ♥ open-access paper:

  • Ryan P. Kovach, Anthony J. Gharrett, and David A. Tallmon. Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population. Proceedings f the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158.

4 Summer Heat Charts That Will Blow Your Mind

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 2:53 PM EDT


Credit: diametrik via FlickrCredit: diametrik via Flickr

NOAA's latest National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) State of the Climate report is out, and it's pretty impressive in the trends and records department.

More on the report below. But, first, I can't help but think of it in light of an interesting new paper in Nature Climate Change today. Researchers studying tree-ring data from living trees and dead trunks preserved in lakes in Finnish Lapland found a much longer-term cooling trend over the past 2,000 years than previously understood. This trend involves a cooling of -0.3°C per millennium due to a gradual increase in the distance between Earth and the sun.

"This figure we calculated may not seem particularly significant," says lead author Jan Esper, "however, it is also not negligible when compared to global warming, which up to now has been less than 1°C. Our results suggest that the large-scale climate reconstruction shown by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change likely underestimate this long-term cooling trend over the past few millennia."

Which implies that human-induced global warming might actually be higher than we've been calculating. Perhaps this is contributing to a disturbing trend researchers are beginning to notice—that extreme weather events are proving more extreme than we've predicted.

Contiguous US temperature average for January to June 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterContiguous US temperature average for January to June 2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data Center

Back to the NCDC report. The past six months, January to June 2012, just ranked as the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous United States.

As you can see in the graph above, the past six months of extremes contributed to a warming trend of 1.7°F per century.

Highlights from the January-June 2012 period:

  • The national temperature of 52.9°F was 4.5°F above the 20th-century average.
  • Most of the contiguous United States was record and near-record warm for the six-month period, except the Pacific Northwest.
  • 28 states east of the Rockies were record warm.
  • 15 additional states were top-10 warm.
  • The first six months of 2012 were also drier than average with a nationally averaged precipitation total 1.62 inches below average.

According to the report, the extremes in the first half of 2012 were the most extreme of the extremes:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI), an index that tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones across the contiguous U.S., was a record-large 44 percent during the January-June period, over twice the average value.

Warmest 12-month periods 1895-2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterWarmest 12-month periods 1895-2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data Center At an even larger scale, note that all the 12 warmest 12-month periods since 1895 have occurred since 2000. And that the past 12 months busted a record broken only last month.

Even more interesting, the past 12 months (July 2011-June 2012) saw each month measuring among the warmest ever on record. From the NCDC report:

During the June 2011-June 2012 period, each of the 13 months ranked among the warmest third of their historical distribution for the first time in the 1895-present record. The odds of this occurring randomly is 1 in 1,594,323.

Year-to-date average temperatures for select locations: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterYear-to-date average temperatures for select locations (click for full list) NOAA | National Climatic Data CenterThe list above shows only the beginning of 150 stations recording crazy temperatures in the first half of this year. You can see the full list of 150 locations with long-standing weather data and their records here.

The temperature anomalies for the first half of 2012 are impressive enough to be game changing. NOAA's National Climatic Data Center report describes them:

In some locations, 2012 temperatures have been so dramatically different that they establish a new "neighborhood" apart from the historical year-to-date temperatures.


Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, year-to-date average temperatures, June to January 1893-2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterScottsbluff, Nebraska, year-to-date average temperatures, January to June 1893-2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data CenterAmong many notable records, these stand out:

  • Scottsbluff, Nebraska, broke the longest-running record of 116 years with temperatures running 5.3°F above average this year (see graph, above, and note the 116-year temperature trend ticking relentlessly upward).
  • Green Bay, Wisconsin, wracked up the highest departure from average for the first half of this year with temperatures 7.6°F above normal.
  • As a region the upper Midwest saw the biggest departures from average with Des Moines, Iowa, at 7.3°F above average; Fargo, North Dakota, at 7.0°F above average; and Rochester, Minnesota, at 7.1°F above average.

Every state across the contiguous US had warmer than average temperatures between July 2011 and June 2012, except Washington, which was near normal.

New Record Low Snow and Ice in Arctic

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 1:29 PM EDT

Hudson Bay melting ice and snow. Left: 06 April 2012. Right: 05 June 2012:eft NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen using data obtained from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE). Hudson Bay melting ice and snow: (left) 06 April 2012; (right) 05 June 2012: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen using data obtained from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE). The latest Arctic report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is out and it's a sobering read. Records were broken in the month of June on two fronts:

  1. The largest ice loss in the satellite record for the month of June: of 1.10 million square miles (2.86 million square kilometers)
  2. The lowest June snow cover on the ground in the Northern Hemisphere: falling 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) below the previous record low set in 2010

 Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 3.7 percent per decade: National Snow and Ice Data CenterMonthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 3.7 percent per decade: National Snow and Ice Data Center

On the sea ice front, the June loss was especially rapid (I wrote more about that here).

It was facilitated in part by remarkably high atmospheric temperatures—up to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) above the 1981-2000 average over northern Eurasia and southern Baffin Bay. These temperatures were measured ~3,000 (914 meters) feet above the ocean's surface.

That made the June 2012 ice extent the second lowest in the satellite record; 2010 is still the record holder.

This year's rapid ice loss contributed to a linear rate of decline for June Arctic ice at 3.7 percent per decade since the satellite record began (graph above).

June 2012 set a record low for Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent. Map shows snow cover anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere. National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.Record low snow-cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere June 2012 compared to 1971-2000 average. National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.

Snow cover over the landmasses of the Northern Hemisphere also retreated rapidly to the lowest levels ever recorded for the date by the end of June.

By then the shores of the entire Arctic Ocean coastline were basically snow free (map above). From the NSIDC report:

This rapid and early retreat of snow cover exposes large, darker underlying surfaces to the sun early in the season, fostering higher air temperatures and warmer soils.


Annual global temperature anomalies, combined for land and ocea, from 1901 to 2000: NASA | National Climatic Data CenterAnnual global temperature anomalies combined for land and ocean from 1901 to 2000: NOAA | National Climatic Data CenterThat positive feedback loop between warming/melting landmasses and warming/melting sea ice will contribute to the trend in the graph above (shown in degrees C).

You can see how the global mean combined temperature over land and ocean has risen a whopping ~1 degree Fahrenheit in a century. And that only includes up to the year 2000. The biggest records continue to be serially broken after 2000.

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