Connecting the Dots for Critters: More Weather and Climate Extremes Affect Wildlife Too

On Saturday May 5, is holding a worldwide Climate Impacts Day to draw attention to how climate change is causing more extreme weather and climate events, often with devastating consequences. We all have experienced or read news accounts of how extreme weather events have affected people and communities in the US — from droughts in Texasto flooding in New England to heat waves in Seattle – not to mention eye-popping events around the world, like the floods in Australia and Pakistan or the heat wave and wildfires in Russia. Saturday’s event is a way to help people really begin to understand that these are not isolated events, but rather part of the larger pattern caused by climate change.

But what happens to the wildlife caught in the crosshairs of one of these weather or climate catastrophes? This part of the story doesn’t always get much attention. Indeed, scientists are only recently beginning to understand just how sensitive wildlife can be to changes in extreme weather and climate events. The National Wildlife Federation and supporters like you are joining in to Connect the Dots on the impacts to wildlife and habitat  of the extreme weather events that climate change is making worse.


Wildlife Already Impacted by More Extremes

Brown pelicans rescued in January 2010 (photo courtesy of Tri-State Bird Rescue)
When I think about the impacts of extreme weather events on wildlife, I’m reminded of the flock of brown pelicans that chose to spend the winter of 2009-2010 in Maryland rather than continue further south as they normally would. Fall and early winter temperatures were unseasonably warm that year, so it probably seemed like a reasonable decision at the time.  Little could they have known that Snowmaggedonwas right around the corner, just one of three storms that combined to make that winter the snowiest on record for much of the region.  Fortunately, state wildlife managers were able to rescue many of the pelicans and provide them shelter for the winter. 

Or I think of the salamanders in northern New Hampshire who have been struggling to cope with increased heavy precipitation and flooding. Turns out that the spring and fall floods have coincided with the periods when salamanders typically go through metamorphosis. As a result, the adult population of salamanders has plummeted.
Monarch butterfly in Grapevine, Texas. Image: Flickr (TexasEagle)
Then, there are the monarch butterflies migrating from Canada to Mexico during the fall of 2011. The butterflies typically stop in western Texas along the way to rest and refuel. However, the staggering drought of 2011 left the area with little water or vegetation. This left the butterflies literally high and dry. The area occupied by overwintering monarchs in Mexico this past December was the 4th lowest on record.

The same drought spawned the largest wildfires recorded in the history of Arizona and New Mexico, affecting more than 694,000 acres. These fires devastated some rare and endangered species, such as the Mexican Spotted Owl. The entire nesting and roosting habitat for these owls in Bandelier National Park was wiped out in the fires. 

Or there’s the red-cockaded woodpecker population in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest that was decimated when Hurricane Hugo made a direct strike in September 1989. About 60 percent of the birds and 87 percent of their nesting cavities were lost. The U.S. Forest Service had to quickly construct artificial cavities to help the remaining birds survive.
Cutthroat Trout. Image: Flickr(CircumerroStock)
And, of course, there’s the heat wave during the summer of 2007 that caused the largest fish kill in the history of Yellowstone National Park. Trout could not survive the high water temperatures brought on by the heat wave. Park rangers for the first time had to close some 232 miles of rivers throughout the park to fishing. 


Connecting the Climate Consequences

These stories illustrate how connecting the extreme weather dots is complicated for wildlife. For example, species that migrate long distances are at the mercy of weather events happening far away. Thus, the impacts of an extreme weather event on wildlife might not be immediately apparent. Furthermore, a change in one aspect of the habitat can have unexpected implications, especially as different species gain a competitive edge to the detriment of other species.

Extreme conditions are likely to have some of the biggest impacts on wildlife in the coming decades simply because droughts, frosts, and winter thaws are the sorts of events that directly kill organisms or change their competitive balance. At the same time, changes in disturbance regimes—often driven by floods, wildfires, and hurricanes—can strongly influence ecosystem functioning. Many ecosystems have adapted to historical patterns of disturbances. Changing the climate conditions that drive the disturbances will have ripple effects on ecosystems that we can’t even anticipate yet.

Another thing these anecdotes have in common is they are all about animals attempting to do what they normally would under conditions that are far from normal. Whereas human populations can anticipate events and take steps to shield themselves from the impacts, wildlife often does not have access to the same resources. This makes our efforts to safeguard wildlife that much more challenging and crucial.


Share Your Own Animal Anecdote

Do you have a story about how wildlife has been affected by a weather or climate extreme?  We want to hear about it!  Here are examples of photos and easy steps to include a photo you take in the Connect the Dots campaign.