Fast-Moving Fires Killed Nearly Half of These Endangered Washington Rabbits
The fast-moving Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires scorched a habitat for Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits on Sept. 7, wiping out around half of the species' recovering population, High Country News reported Monday.
"The sun was blotted out, it was just red from the fire glare and the smoke and all you saw was rocks and sand and dust, there was just nothing," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Biologist Jon Gallie told The Wenatchee World after the fire. "I have not seen a sagebrush fire that hot in my 13 years out here."
Gallie leads a recovery program for North America's smallest rabbits, which are about the size of a grapefruit, according to High Country News. Their population was devastated during the 20th century by development, agriculture and wildfires and, in 2001, the last 16 were gathered from the wild for a captive breeding program. Scientists bred the Washington rabbits with pygmy rabbits from the Great Basin of the intermountain West and began to reintroduce them to the wild in 2011, according to The Wenatchee World.
To defend against wildfires, the rabbits were released in three different locations: Jameson Lake, Beezley Hills and Sagebrush Flats. It was the Jameson Lake population that was lost to September's flames.
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
"We have pygmy rabbits well distributed on the landscape in two other areas, so not all is lost," Gallie told High Country News. "We will just have to chart a now more challenging path to recovery."
"It's devastating," Anderson said. "A catastrophic loss and a significant loss in recovery."
The rabbits aren't the only endangered species that were harmed by the fires. The Pearl Fire may also have reduced the state's sage grouse population by 30 to 70 percent, according to The Seattle Times.
The fires also damaged the sagebrush ecosystem these and other species depend upon. This unique, biodiverse shrub-steppe environment once covered 10.4 million acres of Washington state, but has declined by 80 percent since the mid-19th century. The fires wiped out thousands more acres within days.
While sagebrush ecosystems are used to fires, invasive species of weeds have taken root that dry out early and encourage hotter, larger fires. It takes sagebrush steppe 10 to 20 years to recover from such blazes.
"Truly, now preserving what we have left is going to be the challenge," WDFW habitat program director Margen Carlson told The Seattle Times.The climate crisis is also fueling larger, more extreme fires in Washington and around the world.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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