Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Climate experts, biologists in Orlando to ponder climate change's effect on Florida wildlife

Orlando Sentinel: … Worried climate experts and biologists are meeting this week in Orlando for what they think is the first conference of its kind. They will try to come up with strategies for the survival of creatures that are vulnerable to abrupt changes in climate. In truth, scientists don't know precisely what will happen. Environments are complex. And temperature increases hinge on efforts to reduce pollution that causes global warming. Some flora and fauna could even benefit from changing climate.

…"We have to move beyond thinking about what's good and what's bad," said Tim Breault of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is host for the conference. "We have to look first at how things will change and what that means."

…Florida has unusual challenges because of a pronounced climate boundary, slicing roughly from Tampa Bay through Orlando to Cocoa. To the north, ecosystems are adapted to cooler weather, with periodic freezes. To the south, the weather and wildlife are more tropical. A long list of plants and animals don't cross that line. Manatees, for example, can't survive North Florida winters, except at springs or waters heated by power plants. Meanwhile, imperiled Atlantic sturgeons depend on a familiar temperature and predictable currents in North Florida rivers that flow to the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists think global warming could mean havoc for Florida's thermostat, causing such a rapid shift in that climate boundary that some species would perish before they adjust. Other dramatic changes could occur, said Virginia Burkett, researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey. She cited projections that areas south of Orlando could see much less rain, as well as temperatures several degrees hotter. It's more difficult to say whether the region north of Central Florida would be drier or wetter. In general, much of Florida would see "more frequent and more intense droughts" if the current rate of global warming continues, Burkett said.

…Wildlife experts think the most important step now is to expand and protect existing habitat and wildlife refuges, including one of the most unusual in the nation. "Restoring the Everglades is more important than ever," said Paul Souza, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor in Vero Beach. "We can improve the health of species, which will give many of them more of a chance to adapt to impacts."

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