Ala. scientists warn of major loss in biodiversity, a message that's not popular

Third of a three-part series. Click here for the first part and here for the second.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Alabama's natural scientists are a hardy breed of academics. They toil in excruciating heat during summer sabbaticals to make discoveries about things like the Alabama heelsplitter (Potamilus inflatus) and orangefoot pimpleback (Plethobasus cooperianus), both imperiled mussels that inhabit the state's creeks and rivers.

In other seasons, they tend to the intellectual development of Alabama's roughly 100,000 college students, whose interest in the state's natural heritage ebbs and flows with subject and season.

But the biggest challenge for the state's biologists, ecologists, botanists and other natural resource specialists lies not with Alabama's 137 endangered and threatened species -- the third-highest number among the states -- or the fragile and often postage-stamp-sized ecosystems those animals and plants inhabit.

It rests squarely in the capital, Montgomery, and the economic hubs of Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, where the state's leaders have determined that climate change, arguably the world's most pressing environmental concern, does not much apply to the Heart of Dixie.

"We're kind of in this zone where we have climate forces battling, from the interior parts of the state to the Gulf Coast," said R. Scot Duncan, a biologist and associate professor at Birmingham-Southern College, whose campus occupies a leafy hilltop tucked between this city's downtown district and the gritty steel mills of nearby Fairfield and Bessemer.

"How that battle plays out will have a lot to say about how these ecosystems function in the future," he added.


In the realm of state politics, however, the battle may already be lost (see related story). Many of the state's natural scientists believe that when it comes to inquiries about climate change, they are working without the explicit support of taxpayers or tuition dollars, a condition reflected in the paucity of academic papers addressing the real and potential impacts of climate change in the state.

In fact, many point to a single white paper, published in 2007 by Samford University botanist Lawrence Davenport, as the sole attempt by an Alabama scientist to comprehensively evaluate the effects of climate change on the state's flora or fauna.

A state that is species-rich

In 2008, a second paper, by Jonathan Herbert, a geographer at Jacksonville State University, examined temperature and precipitation change in the state in the Journal of the Alabama Academy of Sciences. The paper was updated in 2012 for The Geographical Bulletin.

The Davenport paper created a stir and even led to a series of public lectures that the author later gave up because many of his audiences didn't like his message. The Herbert papers appear to be little-known and have made no discernible mark on Alabama's policy or public consciousness about climate change.

As it stands, much of the battle for Alabama's climate-stressed species and their ecosystems won't be played out in the public eye, anyway.

Instead, it will be quietly waged, and documented, in the field manuals, academic papers and monographs of scholars like Duncan, whose recently completed book "Southern Wonder: Alabama's Surprising Biodiversity" was awarded the Southern Environmental Law Center's Reed Environmental Writing Award.

Yet any shift in the state's biodiversity due to climate change would come as a major challenge and research opportunity for the global community of biologists, ecologists and other scholars who recognize Alabama as one of the richest repositories of North American plants, freshwater fish and invertebrates.

In 2002, NatureServe, a nonprofit that disseminates some of the most detailed scientific information on species, ranked Alabama as among the five states with the highest biodiversity, with more than 4,530 species. In the eastern United States, Alabama ranks first for species richness as well as species at risk, with nearly 15 percent of its plants and animals on the brink. To date, the state has also lost 90 species to extinction, second only to Hawaii, according to the nonprofit.

For scholars like Duncan, climate change could result in the shrinkage of world-renowned sites like the Ketona Glades in the Cahaba River watershed in central Alabama's Bibb County.

The glades, characterized by thin, dolomite rock soils and highly specific water requirements, support more than 60 rare and endemic species, including eight plants unknown to science until the early 1990s. The Nature Conservancy, which owns a 480-acre glades preserve for the protection of such species, calls it "the most biologically diverse piece of land known in the state of Alabama."

Duncan said it's less the known or predictable outcomes of climate change that concern him most about places like the Ketona Glades; it's the unknowns. "If we get more rain, as some models say we will, these glades will suffer and species could be lost," he said. "If we get less rain, it could be the same outcome. Either way, we lose."

But what of the rest of Alabama, the much larger and more economically productive regions of the state, including its extensive pine forests and sizable agricultural productivity, especially for fruits, vegetables and legumes?

Experts say that although that response may be more of a shuffling of the ecological deck than a full-on collapse, Alabama is woefully unprepared to deal with those outcomes and implications for the state's economy.

Risks stretch from peaches to pines

For example, Alabama's distinctly sweet peaches, grown in a narrow temperate belt that spans the state from east to west south of Birmingham, could shed the very qualities that make them so popular -- size and taste -- if the climate warms even slightly from its current state, experts say.

"Peach growers are at tremendous risk. I worry about them," said Davenport, the botanist and senior faculty member in Samford University's Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences in Birmingham.

"The reason we grow peaches across central Alabama is that in those counties, we get enough winter cold that the buds will set properly, but you don't have the fears of late frost," Davenport explained. "In the future, the 'Peach Belt' as we know it may shift to Huntsville [150 miles north]. So why not be ready for that?"

Davenport, a Seattle native who earned his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Alabama in the late 1970s and early '80s and has served on Samford's faculty long enough to acquire an Alabama accent and earn recognition as one of the state's most accomplished academics, also knows well the challenge of pursuing scientific inquiry in the face of deep skepticism and denial about climate change.

By his own admission, his 2007 white paper, titled "Climate Change and its Potential Effects on Alabama's Plant Life," was a cautious step into a politically charged topic, and its conclusions were tempered with recognition that there was much debate, both within and beyond Alabama, about the degree to which human activities were accelerating climate change.

"It was supposed to have a very practical, business-side approach," Davenport recalled in an interview, so in addition to addressing rare, obscure and endangered plant species, he included sections on how climate change might affect the state's forestry and agriculture sectors.

Relying on two climate models developed in the United Kingdom and Canada and endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Davenport "stress tested" each of the state's roughly 4,000 plant species against predicted rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation.

The predictions, he said recently, "were kind of scary," including findings that many of the state eco-regions, and the species they support, would shift northward, while others that relied on specific geologic features "will constrict severely or disappear entirely."

Davenport also projected there would be significant changes to the state's forests, especially hardwoods that are basic to the northern tier of counties. "We might lose significant species like maples and basswoods and those kinds of things. Even the pines would suffer," he said, due to increased risk of fire and drought, and a projected proliferation of pests like the Southern pine beetle.

A scientist gets 'stress-tested'

According to Davenport, the report was initially well-received. But as its findings became more publicized, he began feeling political blowback, especially in public forums where audiences became more stacked with climate change skeptics.

"I quit doing them because of the animosity. It just wasn't worth it to me," he said. "To have an audience, or part of an audience, shut down from the first word, it takes its toll on you as a speaker. You can't really have a conversation with someone, or teach someone something, if they don't accept how science works."

Davenport has since focused his attention on an indicator species, a tropical spider known as the golden silk orbweaver (Nephila clavipes, or "banana spider") that over the last century has migrated from Florida and the coastal zones of Alabama, Louisiana and Texas into more temperate zones north of the fall line, a well-known geologic formation that traditionally marked a boundary between heat-tolerant and cold-tolerant species.

Davenport is convinced that the banana spider, with its strikingly large abdomen and equally large and intricate web, is riding rising temperatures into Alabama's northern tiers, and a paper detailing his findings appeared in 2012 in the journal Southeastern Naturalist.

But whether such evidence will convince a majority of Alabamians that climate change is a real phenomenon remains an open question.

"I have no hope that this state will take climate change seriously until it kicks it in the face," he said. "And even then, there will be deniers. There will be people saying this is just part of a natural global cycle, blah, blah, blah.

"I'm sorry, but the science says climate change is real. There have been fluxes in the past, but there has been nothing like this. And the creatures of this Earth, including us, will have a difficult task adjusting, if we even can."

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