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Island Trees Have Nowhere to Run From Climate Change

Climate
Island Trees Have Nowhere to Run From Climate Change
A small Bermuda cedar tree sits atop a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. todaycouldbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Marlene Cimons

Kyle Rosenblad was hiking a steep mountain on the island of Maui in the summer of 2015 when he noticed a ruggedly beautiful tree species scattered around the landscape. Curious, and wondering what they were, he took some photographs and showed them to a friend. They were Bermuda cedars, a species native to the island of Bermuda, first planted on Maui in the early 1900s.


"Sometimes, island species are transported by humans outside their native islands — either to a mainland continent or to another island — and manage to survive in the wild there, as the Bermuda cedar has done on Maui," said Rosenblad, a research associate with the Sax Lab at Brown University's department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

He had never been to Bermuda, but suspected its climate was different from Maui's. "Then it hit me: if my suspicion was correct, then this species, by succeeding in Maui's climate, was effectively showing us its biological buffer that might help it survive future climate change," Rosenblad said."However, we still didn't know whether this buffer would be wide enough to accommodate the changes in climate expected to occur on Bermuda."

In other words, the Bermuda cedar could cope with life on Maui, but that doesn't mean it could cope with life in Bermuda later this century.

A Bermuda beach

Pixabay

Existing research shows that island species are less diverse than their cousins on the mainland. That lack of diversity makes them vulnerable to changing conditions. On an island, for instance, every member of a particular tree species might be suited to cool weather, whereas on the mainland, some are suited to the cold, while others are built for the heat. If temperatures rise, at least some of the mainland trees, those built for warm weather, might endure, but the island trees could perish.

"If climate change makes a given island too warm for the species that live there — or too dry or too stormy — then those species will be stuck on their island with nowhere to escape," Rosenblad said.

Rosenblad and his colleagues — Dov Sax, head of the Sax Lab, and doctoral student Daniel Perret — investigated the dangers that climate change poses to island species by studying conifers, a group that includes cedars, firs and pines. "When unique island tree species are given a chance to grow outside their native islands, how much extra climate hardiness do they show?" Rosenblad said. "And will that extra hardiness be sufficient to help them survive predicted future changes in climate?"

Branches of a Bermuda cedar

Malcolm Manners

What they found was troubling. Their work suggests that climate change could push many small island conifers — nearly a quarter of those they studied — into extinction by 2070. The smaller the island the more danger, as trees have nowhere to flee. The larger the island, the more varied the climate, meaning species can relocate to cooler areas. Their research appears in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Our results took us by surprise," Rosenblad said. "We expect if these species are left to fend for themselves, climate change will eventually drive them extinct."

Species can adapt to new conditions, but climate change will make that difficult. "The rub is that for some species, the amount of hardiness and adaptability they have shown is still not enough to buffer them against the changes in climate that are expected to occur on their native islands," Rosenblad said.

Canary Island pine trees, one of the conifers used in the study

Luc Viatour

So, while the Bermuda cedar may thrive on Maui, adapting to the future climate of Bermuda "will require an even bigger stretch," he added. He added that while the Bermuda cedar is surviving in many different places, "sadly none of them has a climate that resembles the one that Bermuda is projected to have in 50 years." That being the case, he said, "we still don't have any evidence that it can handle the climatic changes that are expected to occur on its native island."

The scientists urged caution in interpreting the findings, as species might be hardier that the evidence suggests. "However, I still find our results highly concerning," Rosenblad said.

In conducting their study, the researchers relied upon data obtained from global digitized plant specimen collections. Focusing on 55 species of coniferous trees, they cross-referenced information about them with existing worldwide climate statistics to determine the climate conditions, such as temperature and precipitation, at each location where their study species were found, including their native islands and other sites. They then built computer models for each species which told the researchers how the species would fare under different combinations of climatic conditions, including climate conditions projected for their native islands in 50 years.

Norfolk Island pines, one of the conifers used in the study

Bertknot

Researchers said many island tree species likely will require "serious help" withstanding climate change. "Failing to provide this help could have dire consequences, not just for the tree species themselves," he said. Trees perform essential functions, he explained, "like helping to regulate the flows of water and nutrients through the ecosystem."

Researchers called for targeted conservation efforts to avert extinction. Moreover, many of these trees also are culturally significant to island residents, especially the Bermuda cedar.

"It remains an indelible Bermudian cultural symbol," Rosenblad said. "Its wood has long been prized by artisans and builders. There is even a Bermudian wedding tradition, in which the cake is presented carrying a cedar seedling on top, and the couple then plants the seedling together."

He added, " It's important to underscore the beauty of these trees — and help them avoid extinction — so future generations can benefit from all they have to offer."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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