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Climate Disruption & Virginia’s Native Species

Climate disruption is a global issue that already appears to be impacting aspects of our environment and the native species we find familiar. Warming climate trends lead to increased incidence and intensity of storms, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other consequences, causing variations in species’ ranges and habitat, changes in the timing of migrations, and altering food chain dynamics. While it is difficult to determine exactly how a species is being impacted by any one variation in their complex environments, evidence shows that many plants, animals, and birds are feeling the effects of climate disruption in a way similar to people.

In Virginia, certain species likely already are, or soon will be, impacted by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Here are some examples of notable variations that can be seen today:

1. According to recent studies, vining plants appear to be benefiting from the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but at the cost of biodiversity and a balanced ecosystem. Already invasive woody vines such as Kudzu, Poison Ivy, English Ivy, and Japanese Honeysuckle are overtaking trees and forests at an alarming rate. This not only suffocates and kills trees, which have a greater capacity to sequester carbon; it also causes maintenance issues when fast-growing vines take over gardens and homes. Moreover, Poison Ivy appears to be becoming more irritating to humans when exposed to environments with higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air. This has the potential to make the beautiful forests of Virginia less enjoyable to visit.

2. The Blue Crab has long been threatened by anthropogenic (human) factors, but over fishing and fertilizer pollution are not the only practices to blame. Eelgrass and Tidal Marshes, two essential habitats for the Blue Crab, are currently disappearing due to rising sea levels, warmer waters, and stronger storm surges, all of which are associated with climate change. The temperature of the Bay has risen by two degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, and the water level in the bay has risen more than one foot over the past century. If these trends continue, the already declining Blue Crab population will be in even more serious danger.

3. As pollinators, bees are responsible for perpetuating the life cycle of countless useful and vital plant species. According to studies, bumblebees are on the decline in the United States, most likely due to a combination of diseases and pathogens that spread through the entire hive. Bees are most susceptible to these pathogens when they face environmental stresses, such as extreme weather, which is likely to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of ongoing climate change.

4. Jellyfish, also referred to as Atlantic Sea Nettles, are arriving earlier than usual in the Chesapeake Bay because of the increased temperature of the water, a phenomenon many scientists are attributing to the rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Studies in the York River are finding that the early arrival puts jellyfish in sync with a different food chain, allowing them to eat the most nutritious parts of the food web without their normal competition. This leaves little valuable energy behind for other species later in the year, such as Sardines and Menhaden that serve as an important food source for larger fish. The early arrival of jellyfish threatens the biodiversity of the bay, throwing the already fragile ecosystem off-balance.

5. The Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel, an icon of the Appalachian Mountains, is an Endangered Species with heritage going back 30 million years. The rare Flying Squirrel is on the verge of being extirpated in Virginia because of its declining habitat, which is currently being threatened by factors such as acid rain, an influx of damaging insects, and increasing temperatures. The Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel lives in higher altitudes, usually in mature, old growth trees, which become more vulnerable to pests and stressors as temperatures rise. And, the Northern Flying Squirrel is beginning to face increased competition with the more aggressive Southern Flying Squirrel, which is entering the already limited range of the Northern Squirrel, likely because of the unusually warm temperatures.

6. Native pine trees in Virginia, such as Loblolly Pines, Shortleaf Pines, Pond Pines and Virginia Pines, are being infested and killed by the Southern Pine Beetle. While these beetles are native to Virginia, recent years have seen an increase in outbreaks and epidemics. This could be because the growth cycle of Pine Beetles is highly sensitive to climate. During the winter, the Southern Pine Beetle population is kept in-check because they develop more slowly. With the recent milder winters, their development continues at almost its regular pace, allowing more trees to come under attack. In addition, Pine Beetles generally target stressed trees. The effects of climate change, such as amplified heat, drought, abnormally high rain levels, and severe storms make more pine trees vulnerable to the increasing population of beetles.

7. The Piping Plover is a beach-dwelling bird native to Virginia’s Barrier Islands. Designated as an Endangered Species in 1986, the Plover faces a multitude of threats, including human presence on the beaches where they breed. When humans visit the areas of the Barrier Islands where Piping Plovers nest, it can scare the pairs away, leaving the eggs or young birds vulnerable to predators. Despite conservation efforts to lessen human impact on the Piping Plover, the increased intensity of summer rains and storms are washing the nests away, devastating the protected population. The storms responsible are expected to continue and/or worsen as a result of climate change.

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About the Author

Corrina Beall is the Legislative Coordinator for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.