COLUMBIA — No longer a phenomenon for future Missourians to worry about, climate change is clearly part of the here and now.
Growing conditions in the state have become more favorable for plants previously found farther south. Several species of birds common to Missouri are shifting their ranges northward. And if climate change continues to unfold as some climatologists predict, Missouri can expect warmer temperatures, shorter winters and an overall increase in rain and flooding.
Here are some examples of Missouri birds that have become less common, along with the observed northward shift in their range.
- American tree sparrow (54 miles)
- Rough-legged hawk (179 miles)
- Golden eagle (58 miles)
- American black duck (182 miles)
- Black-capped chickadee (90 miles)
The following are Missouri birds that have become more common, as well as the observed northward shift in their ranges.
- Turkey vulture (53 miles)
- Eastern phoebe (48 miles)
- Snow goose (217 miles)
- Northern shoveler (79 miles)
- Marsh wren (25 miles)
Source: Audubon Society
That was the subject of the 2009 Missouri Natural Resources Conference held at the Lake of the Ozarks from Feb. 4 to 6. The conference brought together resource specialists from around the state to explore the impact of global climate change on Missouri.
The stated goal of the conference wasn't to debate the cause of climate change. Rather, the goal was to open a scientific discussion about the possible consequences of climate change on the natural resources in Missouri.
Pat Guinan, an MU Extension climatologist with MU's Commercial Agriculture Program, said there is a "general consensus among the scientific community that temperatures are likely going to increase over the next 100 years."
Guinan, who led a workshop at the conference, said some regional climate models, using different economic scenarios, suggest a range of warming in Missouri over the next 100 years. On the less severe end of the spectrum, he said, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could raise annual temperatures in Missouri by an average of 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Under that scenario, the climate in the Columbia area would resemble the present climate of southern Missouri. Under the worst-case scenario, he said, average temperatures in Central Missouri could increase by 7 degrees and result in a climate that resembles present-day central Arkansas.
Anthony Lupo, chairman of the MU department of soil, environmental and atmospheric sciences, said temperatures in Missouri have been rising for 30 years.
"Anyone who denies this isn’t a very good scientist," he said.
What remains in dispute, Lupo said, is whether human-produced greenhouse gases cause global warming.
"The Earth goes through phases of warming and cooling, and though all the computer models we have show that we are in a warming phase, there is no way to differentiate between a natural warming and one that is human-caused,” he said.
Climate change is expected to bring severe drought to many parts of the world, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists from around the world working under the auspices of the United Nations.
Although total global precipitation is expected to decline, the panel has concluded, shifting weather patterns can increase rainfall in certain areas.
Dave Gustafson, a senior fellow with the agricultural Monsanto Co. and a former climate change skeptic, told those gathered at the Missouri conference that “most climate models predict increased rainfall for the Midwest, which means more frequent floods for Missouri.”
According to prediction models from the panel, the Midwest could become anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent wetter during the next 100 years.
Guinan, however, isn’t convinced.
“The climatological signals are less clear for or against the effects of regional climate change on areas other than the warming temperatures it will cause," Guinan said, noting that "uncertainties are higher with precipitation outcomes.”
Regardless, many speakers at the Natural Resources Conference sounded the warning that weather and temperature changes will lead to more chaotic weather, such as severe thunderstorms and flooding.
Jim Kramper, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis, said the evidence is all around us.
“You wanna see proof of global warming — we now have to deal with tropical storms here in Missouri," Kramper said. "Hurricane Ike rolled right over us. That's not supposed to happen, but it did. That's climate change.”
Kramper later called that comment “tongue-in-cheek.” But he does think one possible impact of climate change could be an increasing threat in Missouri from tropical storms. In September, the remains of Hurricane Gustav moved over mid-Missouri, and the remains of Hurricane Ike and Tropical Storm Lowell followed soon after. Each episode dumped from 3 to 6 inches of rain on parts of central Missouri.
The 56.78 inches of rain that fell in Columbia during 2008 eclipsed the yearly average of 40.28 inches and made it the second-wettest year since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. Guinan noted, however, that the state had been experiencing a dry decade. He said there's no way to know whether the record rainfall was related to climate change. The wettest year on record in Columbia is 1993 — the year of the Great Flood — when 62.5 inches of rain fell.
Each year, members of the Audubon Society survey and record the frequency and location of every bird they can lay their eyes on. Forty years of data has led them to conclude that birds are moving north.
According to the Audubon Society, the American tree sparrow, the rough-legged hawk, the golden eagle, the American black duck and the black-capped chickadee have become less common in Missouri and more common to the North during the past four decades.
On the other hand, the turkey vulture, the eastern phoebe, the snow goose, the northern shoveler and the marsh wren have become more common in Missouri.
The average range of some bird species has shifted northward — about 220 miles at most.
Linda Joyce, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, told the Natural Resources Conference that the effect of climate change on birds is studied far more than any other animal. She noted that American robins are migrating north two weeks earlier than they have historically been reported and that tree swallows are beginning their egg-laying season an average of nine days earlier.
Pete Nowak of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison noted in his presentation that the first song of the season for cardinals comes, on average, 22 days earlier than it did 60 years ago.
Jill DeWitt, policy coordinator for Audubon Missouri, said tundra species such as the snowy owl and the American golden plover — both occasionally seen in Missouri — are most at risk.
“Our Missouri prairie birds are also in peril,” DeWitt said. “They may be unable to find the healthy habitats they need, like grasslands, which are being decimated by overuse and overdevelopment. They have few other places to go and did not show much movement in our study.
“While all of the other birds are moving north, these birds simply don’t have anywhere farther north to go,” DeWitt said. “Along with changes in climate come changes in the availability of food sources such as insects and caterpillars for young birds. We are seeing birds that are malnourished and too weak to leave the nest die.”
Research at Michigan State University found that armadillo sightings were rare in Missouri in 1995. Less than a decade later, armadillos had become well-established in the state. According to research, the only barrier to the armadillo’s northward expansion would be harsh northern winters, something the armadillo cannot tolerate well and something that has become rarer as temperatures warm.
Plant diversity could mean adaptation
Plant habitats are shifting north as well. A study by the national Arbor Day Foundation showed that the majority of Missouri has moved into an entirely different plant hardiness zone in less than 20 years. These zones divide the United States and Canada into 11 areas based on a 10-degree Fahrenheit difference in the average annual minimum temperature. They are used by the Arbor Day Foundation to represent conditions that favor specific types of plant growth.
This northward shift means that growing conditions in Missouri have become more favorable for plant types found to the south.
Several plants that were limited to southern Missouri two decades ago are now well-suited to grow throughout the state, including the Leyland cypress, the blue hydrangea, the southern magnolia and the pecan.
“Missouri faces such high stress from climate change because the large diversity of plant species in Missouri could experience great changes,” said Joyce, of the U.S. Forest Service. “This diversity of plant species also offers Missouri many options for adapting to the changing climate.”
Monsanto Co. is working on adapting farming in the state to meet the challenges of climate change.
“We are working to produce crops and farming techniques that release less nitrous oxide, which is responsible for 70 percent of agriculture’s contribution to climate change,” senior fellow Gustafson said. “We are increasing yield, disease resistance and the ability of these crops to face environment stresses.”
'We need to act now'
The Audubon Society puts itself squarely in the camp of those who attribute climate change to human-produced greenhouse gases.
“The reason we believe these shifts in bird ranges are being caused by climate change is that there is a strong correlation between shifting ranges and winter temperature trends,” DeWitt said.
The relationship between bird ranges and climate change explains some of the movements seen among U.S. bird species, DeWitt said. Birds are found farther north in warmer winters than in colder winters.
“We have had a very cold winter this year, but that becomes even more dangerous in this situation because the birds move north following the long-term trend, then you have a very cold winter and you see massive die-off,” DeWitt added.
She cited the die-off of brown pelicans along the Pacific Coast this year as an example. Pelicans weren’t found there until recently, and they were ill-equipped to survive a big snowstorm that occurred off the Oregon and Washington coasts.
“People who think the effects of climate change will be seen far from home should think again,” DeWitt said. “Climate disruption is being seen here and now. We need to act now to stem the causes, minimize its severity and take science-based conservation action to help species and habitats weather the changes we can’t avoid."
The Arbor Day Foundation suggests planting a tree to help counter climate change. It says a single tree can pull more than a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the course of its life.
'We can and will handle this challenge'
Although speakers at the Natural Resources Conference had much to say about what needs to be done to counter climate change, they gave little attention to what’s being done in Missouri.
“Missouri’s record on resource management has been excellent,” said Marc Vanacht of AG Business Consultants, an agriculture and food business-consulting firm based in the St. Louis area, after the conference. He added, however, that awareness of climate change has come to Missouri at a much slower pace than in some other states.
Vanacht said that Missouri's extreme weather might have made climate changes hard to notice.
Gustafson noted that we’re seeing more warming in winter and spring. “This makes for more mild winters and springs and summers that come earlier.”
Nowak, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his state already is seeing warmer weather and less snow and ice. That has had a serious impact on the winter tourism industry, he said.
Nowak said Wisconsin has taken significant steps to prepare for climate change. The state has its own panel on climate change, with working groups for forestry, wildlife and storm water as well as others for individual city populations. These groups work to identify specific vulnerabilities and make plans for handling them.
He said that Wisconsin is approaching climate change from two angles — mitigation and adaptation — and that Missouri needs to do the same.
Mitigation of climate change involves attempts to limit greenhouse gas output by, for example, converting to alternate energy sources that don't contribute carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Adaptation involves increasing the ability of resources such as food production, water systems and natural resources to handle climate changes as they occur.
“You need to recognize indicators of vulnerability, manage entire systems rather than just their components and practice adaptive management,” Nowak said. “Increasing resiliency and risk management will be key.”
Paul Myers, an environmental specialist with the Air Pollution Control Program at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said he “would tend to agree with the idea that we are not leaders on the issue of climate change. There are states that are doing a lot more than Missouri, but we are doing some things that other states aren’t."
One Missouri program, known as net metering, allows homes and businesses that produce their own energy with solar panels or wind turbines to sell excess power back into the grid. The program is designed to make renewable energy more attractive.
Missouri voters in November also passed Proposition C, which requires that utilities in the state get 2 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2011 and up to 15 percent by 2021. There also are programs that let consumers pay a premium for power produced by green energy sources such as solar and wind.
Myers acknowledged that Missouri lacks several programs that other states have.
“We have no target for reducing greenhouse gas levels," he said. "Many states have mandates that try to roll back emissions to year 2000 levels.”
Myers said House Bill 470, the Global Warming Solutions Act, sets goals for reducing greenhouses gases, “but I don’t know what chance it has of passing.” Currently, no action is scheduled for the bill.
“We are also behind in building energy codes,” Myers said. “Some states set minimum energy-efficiency codes, but we do not.”
Myers said he thinks that one of the reasons Missouri has not established these sorts of policies is that officials anticipated the federal government would have done so by now.
“These policies can be very costly,” he said, “and when you have a conflict between a state and federal mandate, it makes the process all the more complicated.”
Vanacht, though, remains optimistic Missouri can deal with climate change.
“We have the people and we have the infrastructure,” he said. “We can and will handle this challenge. There are others, however, who will face the same challenges but lack the tools to handle it.”