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 the effects of climate disruption are being felt by many plants, animals and birds, much as they are by people. In Virginia, many species are likely to be impacted by a changing climate. Here are some examples of notable changes that can already be seen today:

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1. According to recent studies, vining plants appear to be benefiting from the increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) 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. These infestations of invasive species not only suffocate and kill trees, which have a greater capacity to sequester carbon; they can also cause maintenance issues when fast-growing vines take over gardens and homes. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that poison ivy grown in high-CO2 environments will not only become more abundant but also produce more urushiol – the skin irritant found in the leaves of the plant. Additionally, a study conducted in 2014 found that areas with large infestations of kudzu had a 28% decrease in soil carbon due to its ability to disrupt the soil decomposition process and 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; however, overfishing and fertilizer pollution are not the only practices to blame. In the Chesapeake Bay, warming waters and an increase in rainfall associated with climate change contribute to hypoxia (depletion of oxygen from the water column) that make it difficult for these crustacean scavengers to forage for food and can lead to over-crowding and crab mortality due to competition for space and resources. Additionally, Sea Level Rise (SLR) is projected to contribute to a 161,000 acre loss in juvenile blue crab habitat by 2100 which would have a dramatic impact on blue crab populations. If our current 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. Both Bumblebees and Honeybees 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 pathogens when they face environmental stresses, such as extreme weather.Changing weather patterns disrupt the bee’s spring pollination patterns – if our pollinating plants begin to bloom too early, the bees have not awoken from their winter hibernation and starve. Likewise, if the plants awake too early and the bees have not yet awoken and miss the first blooms, there can be additional consequences. This change in seasonal plant life cycles could be associated with Colony Collapse Disorder that resulted in a 50% loss in honey bee hives in the United States during 2012-2013. This is all a delicate balance that will be heavily influenced by changes to our climate.

4. Atlantic Sea Nettles, commonly referred to as jellyfish, 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 conducted in the York River are finding that the early arrival of jellyfish disrupts the established food chain, allowing them to eat the most nutritious parts of the food web before their normal competition. This leaves little valuable energy behind for other species later in the year, such as sardines and menhaden that serve as important food sources 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 is an icon of the Appalachian Mountains. This rare squirrel was included on The List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife from 1985-2013 due to its declining population caused primarily by habitat loss. The Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel lives in higher altitudes, usually in mature, old growth trees, which are not only desirable to the lumber industry but also become more vulnerable to pests and stressors as temperatures rise. Although the Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel has been removed from the List, it also faces increased competition with the more aggressive invasive Southern Flying Squirrel, which is entering the already limited range of the Northern Squirrel, likely because of 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 beetle outbreaks. This increase could be linked to the climate-sensitive growth cycle of pine beetles. Typically, the southern pine beetle experiences a mass winter die-off due to the harsh winter cold.; however, with recent milder winters, the beetle continues to develop at a regular pace, allowing more trees to come under attack.In addition, pine beetles generally target stressed trees. The effects of climate change on pine trees, such as amplified heat, drought, abnormally high rain levels, and severe storms make trees vulnerable to the increasing population of beetles and warming temperatures threaten more pines as the beetle continues to expand northward.

7. The Piping Plover is a beach-dwelling bird native to Virginia’s Barrier Islands. Designated as a “vulnerable species” since 1986, the plover faces a multitude of threats, including habitat loss primarily caused by human presence on the beaches where they breed. When humans visit areas where the piping plover nest, can cause parent birds to abandon their nests leaving their eggs or young chicks vulnerable to predators. Despite conservation efforts to lessen human impact on the piping plover, the increased intensity of summer rains and storms associated with climate change are washing nests away and devastating the protected population. Additionally, climate change projected sea level rise threatens lowlying coastal areas and will escalate the extinction risk of not only piping plover but many Virginia coastal species.


About the Author

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