Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

UA prof: Global warming hitting Southwest

Buffelgrass kills young saguaros by blocking sun and sucking up the water the budding behemoths need.

Buffelgrass kills young saguaros by blocking sun and sucking up the water the budding behemoths need.

Environmental stewards might soon have to take the bull by the horns where endangered species are concerned – by moving them or their environments.

“We’ve got to get past this idea that conservation is just where you put a fence up,” said Camille Parmesan, an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas who spoke Thursday at a climate change conference in Tucson.

Endangered species, including a butterfly native to the Pacific coast of Mexico and California, could actually be captured and moved en masse to other areas as climate change alters their environments. As the traditional environment shrinks because it gets too warm, other places, such as the Pacific Northwest in the case of the butterflies, could become new virgin environments for the species, she said.

By the same token, ailing environments could be “moved” by seeding in areas projected to be compatible down the line, said Allen Solomon, national program leader for global change research at the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.

Though most of the individual trees would die at first, they would gradually establish in new areas as the climate warms, Solomon said.

“We’ve got to be putting in species that don’t grow there now,” he said.

Though the idea is fairly new, the transportation of species isn’t. Many species are already moving – on cars and trucks, airplanes and intercontinental ships, Parmesan said.

Opportunities would be limited to relatively few species and to relatively short moves – less than 500 miles.

“The number of species we are considering doing this with is minuscule compared to the number we are already moving around the globe,” she said.

Solomon and Parmesan were among about 300 scientists, government officials, environmentalists and others gathered at Westward Look Resort to discuss climate change and how we can adapt to it.

The conference, which runs through Friday, offers a chance to examine ways we can deal with climate change – and maybe avoid some of its worst repercussions. Climate change is real, and it is hitting the Southwest hard, said Jonathan Overpeck, director of the University of Arizona Institute for Environment and Society.

Our region has already begun to heat up, Overpeck said.

“The warming has already been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit . . . That’s kinda scary,” he told the audience in an opening statement. “It’s affecting the Southwest of the United States more than any other area outside of Alaska.”

Adapting can also help us lessen the impact of normal droughts that hit the region regularly. If we don’t adapt, global warming could push those droughts into megadroughts that last longer, said Thomas Swetnam, director of UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

“We could be kicking a sleeping giant,” Swetnam said.

Climate change is likely to change the Sonoran Desert landscape, said David Breshears, a UA natural resources professor who works at the Institute for the Environment and Society.

We will have more fire and insect outbreaks, erosion from wind and water and competition among plants from non-native species, especially grasses, Breshears said.

One key problem is fire combined with non-native grasses, such as buffelgrass. When buffelgrass burns, it kills native plants, leaving more room for more grass. With each burn, more of the desert dies and more grass spreads.

“We’re setting up a feedback that is very difficult to get out of,” Breshears said.

Climate change even threatens to eradicate our “megaflora” of the Southwest, such as Joshua trees and saguaro cactuses. Buffelgrass kills young saguaros by blocking sun and sucking up the water the budding behemoths need.

“That’s a pretty grim forecast for Tucson,” Breshears said.

Despite thousands of scientists studying climate change, major questions about the Southwest remain unanswered, Overpeck said.

“One of the things we can’t say is whether the monsoon will get stronger or weaker – the models are all over the place,” he said.

The conference is sponsored by UA’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest, Institute for Environment and Society, James E. Rogers College of Law and Program on Economics, Law and the Environment.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service