Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

In Glacier National Park, Ice Isn't the Only Thing That's Disappearing

Animals
Cracker Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana. Jacob W. Frank / NPS / Flickr

By Jason Bittel

High up in the mountains of Montana's Glacier National Park, there are two species of insect that only a fly fishermen or entomologist would probably recognize. Known as stoneflies, these aquatic bugs are similar to dragonflies and mayflies in that they spend part of their lives underwater before emerging onto the land, where they transform into winged adults less than a half inch long. However, unlike those other species, stoneflies do their thing only where cold, clean waters flow.


In fact, these flies live pretty much exclusively downstream from glaciers, snowfields, and frigid alpine springs, and they have evolved a nifty suite of antifreeze compounds to make it all possible. It's a pretty cool trick — one that has helped the insects survive for hundreds of millions of years in frigid conditions that have sent others packing. But what makes these insects special may also be their undoing — and soon.

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier) and the meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana) to the Endangered Species List, both under the designation of threatened. And while the two species are extremely sensitive to pollution, as all stoneflies are, another very significant risk factor is what triggered the listing.

"All of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are expected to be gone by 2030," said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Like, all of them all of them. Ten years from now. And without giant chunks of ice to chill their streams and supply life-sustaining meltwater, the stoneflies cannot exist.

"In 1900, there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park," said Greenwald. "There are now 25."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the disappearance of the park's glaciers could also bring more wildfires to the region and negatively affect native trout species, which have also evolved to live in cold water. But climate change cometh first for the stoneflies, and that right soon.

From left: meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana); a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey looks for aquatic insects in an alpine stream at Glacier National Park.

Glacier NPS

How, you may wonder, would an Endangered Species Act listing help these seemingly doomed species?

Well, the act would have previously required the FWS to designate critical habitat for the stoneflies. But the Trump administration announced changes this summer that allow the agency to opt out of declaring critical habitat in cases when "it may not be prudent" — as the FWS phrased it in the stoneflies' entry into the Federal Register. Cases, ahem, linked to climate change, for instance.

This is akin to saying climate change is a problem without a solution. But there is a scientific solution, of course. We need to cut carbon emissions. As much and as quickly as possible. The fact that the Trump administration hasn't made any meaningful effort to do so does not mean that it is impossible by definition. Or that we should simply give up on the stoneflies and their habitat, and so, so much more.

The CBD and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation have been petitioning for the western glacier stonefly's listing since 2010, and WildEarth Guardians has been pushing for federal protections for the meltwater lednian stonefly since 2007. And while the non-designation of critical habitat is disappointing, Greenwald said the FWS still must develop a recovery plan for both species, though it's unclear at this stage what that will look like. But the listings are important for another reason as well.

Clockwise from top: a meltwater stonefly at Glacier National Park; close-up of two meltwater lednian stoneflies; close-up of western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier)

Glacier NPS / Flickr. Western glacier stonefly: Joe Giersch / USGS

"Listing provides information to people," said Greenwald. "Really, it raises the alarm bells in terms of climate change."

Of course, the stoneflies themselves have a stake in all of this too. Every species has an inherent right to exist, and what's more, their loss would ripple throughout the ecosystems they inhabit. Stonefly nymphs shred leaf material and other aquatic detritus, which helps unlock nutrients and facilitates their spread throughout the ecosystem. Stoneflies also serve as yummy snacks for amphibians, other insects, and the trout that fishermen lust after. And after the adults emerge from their cool waters to breed, they die, providing yet another buffet for other critters. In short, stoneflies are a critical base layer of the local food web.

In the end, the real story of the stoneflies is one of urgency. The extinctions and other climate-fueled changes scientists keep warning us about aren't like some far-off, Nostradamus predictions. They'll be here before we know it. In fact, we are already watching them unfold.

"I think for anyone out there who's really doubting how rapidly our world is changing, how serious the threat climate change is, they should pay attention to these stoneflies," said Greenwald.

Reposted with permission from onEarth.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Moroccan patients who recovered from the novel coronavirus disease celebrate with medical staff as they leave the hospital in Sale, Morocco, on April 3, 2020. AFP / Getty Images

By Tom Duszynski

The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.

In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.

Read More Show Less
Reef scene with crinoid and fish in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Reinhard Dirscherl / ullstein bild / Getty Images

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A daughter touches her father's head while saying goodbye as medics prepare to transport him to Stamford Hospital on April 02, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. He had multiple COVID-19 symptoms. John Moore / Getty Images

Across the country, the novel coronavirus is severely affecting black people at much higher rates than whites, according to data released by several states, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Four rolls of sourdough bread are arranged on a surface. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny and food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post / Getty Images

By Zulfikar Abbany

Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A coral reef in Egypt's Red Sea. Tropical ocean ecosystems could see sudden biodiversity losses this decade if emissions are not reduced. Georgette Douwma / Stone / Getty Images

The biodiversity loss caused by the climate crisis will be sudden and swift, and could begin before 2030.

Read More Show Less