More and Harsher Hurricanes May Threaten Florida's Longleaf Pines
Plus Butterflies, Flowers, and a Word From the UN
Florida’s Longleaf Pines May Suffer from More Hurricanes and More Intense Hurricanes
For Americans, when we think of hurricanes, Florida probably comes to mind first. The Sunshine State could well be called the coastline state. Florida is basically low-lying land surrounded on almost all sides by ocean waters. Alaska actually has more coast, but when it comes to the ratio of coastline to land, Florida wins hands down.
So Florida has the coasts. It’s also in the southern region of the Northern Temperate Zone, a place with a lot of warm ocean water and enough of a Coriolis effect to form hurricanes. As someone who lives in a very temperate climate, I don’t know how people live in a place that gets so hot and humid for most of the spring, most of the fall, and all of the summer, but lots of folks live in Florida. After Texas and California, Florida is the third most populous state.
When hurricanes hit, we mostly concentrate on what happens to our fellow humans and our houses and buildings. On television we see images of waves pounding sea walls and piers, and winds tearing at rooftops, but the hurricanes affect habitats and ecoregions as well.
Of all the natural habitats of the South, some of the most distinctive are the stands of longleaf pines (Pinus palustris). The trees are tall, usually growing to a little over 100 feet. They are similar to the coastal redwoods of California in that they usually establish themselves in groves of a single species. Though there may be only longleaf pines in a grove, the pines foster a great deal of biodiversity in their ground cover.
Like most everything else that is natural, the range and habitat of longleaf pines have been reduced by humans in the last couple hundred years. Longleaf pine once occupied around 37 million hectares in the South, an amount of land about the size of the state of Montana. The pines now occupy less than three percent of their original range. Some of the more expansive tracts that remain are in Florida, with some getting federal protection at Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases. There are also efforts to restore stands of pines in the state.
Longleaf pine woods are like California’s redwoods in another way. They rely on fire to maintain their stands and their ecosystems. Low-intensity ground fires don’t harm the pines, at least not much, but the fires clear away competing species and aid in the germination of the longleaf pine seeds. Fire suppression in longleaf pine woods leads to the establishment of hardwood trees and shrubs that inhibit longleaf pine reproduction. Intense fires or frequent fires can also disrupt the pines’ ecosystem.
Hurricanes have also been a part of the disturbance regime that longleaf pines have lived through for millennia. Most of the trees survive the pounding winds and rain. Hurricanes do pull down some trees, which changes shade patterns and litter accumulation in the groves, ultimately aiding the health of the pine grove. If either fire or storms are absent from a pine grove, the ecosystem is altered dramatically, usually by the invasion of other tree and shrub species that inhibit the reproduction of the pines.
So fire and hurricanes are good for the pines, but, just like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing.
Frank S. Gilliam, a professor of biology at the University of West Florida looked at the trends of hurricanes hitting Florida and at research on the effects of hurricanes on the longleaf pine. Using records that go back to 1850, Gilliam found that since the mid 19th century there has been a steady upward trend in the frequency of storms and hurricanes hitting Florida.
The number of hurricanes goes up and down year by year, but looking at multi-year averages over the last 170 years, trends emerged. The number of Florida hurricanes increased from 1850 until 1910, decreased slightly until 1930, increased sharply until 1955, followed by a slight decrease until 1990. Since 1990 the number of hurricanes has increased substantially. Gilliam says, “Other than in 2006 and 2014, since 1990, there have been no years with fewer than six tropical storms; prior to 1990, most years had fewer—often far fewer—than six storms.”
Gilliam also found that these hurricanes are getting more intense. Both the intensity and frequency of the hurricanes correlate with increases in air and ocean temperatures. And we can pretty much figure that global warming is causing the increase in storms and hurricanes. Professor Gilliam published his findings in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
So are these fiercer and more frequent hurricanes hurting the pines? As it stands, predictions in more subtle changes in weather associated with global warming will likely shift the range of the trees out of Florida. It makes sense that more frequent and harsher storms will only exacerbate the process.
Should efforts be made to protect Florida’s longleaf pines from more frequent and harsher hurricanes? Should efforts be made to reestablish stands of pines through Georgia and the Carolinas, where the hurricanes aren’t as bad as in Florida? What do you think?
Endangered Species Status Sought for the Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly
The Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly as endangered.
To look at the population surveys of the butterfly over the years is a depressing thing. From 1999, when the Forest Service started monitoring the checkerspot, the numbers indicate worsening decline every year.
Endangered status was first proposed by USFWS two decades ago, but the agency withdrew that and opted for a voluntary conservation plan in November of 2005.
Needless to say, the voluntary plan has been ineffective. Surveys for the caterpillar in the last three years have turned up no caterpillars and only a handful of adults.
Conservation of any habitat or creature can be difficult. Butterfly conservation can be complicated because caterpillars for many species of butterflies will only consume food from one species of host plant. And that can be complicated further. Caterpillars may only consume from host plants that grow on north-facing slopes or in sandy soils. In the case of the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly, the caterpillars feast only on New Mexico penstemon (Penstemon neomexicanus). Females of the butterfly lay between 10 and 100 eggs on the underside of New Mexico penstemon leaves in July or August.
In a press release from the Center For Biological Diversity dated March 1, 2021, Tara Cornelisse, an entomologist and senior scientist a the center said:
By reversing their own conclusions and ignoring this butterfly’s plight, the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to protect this imperiled species. The Endangered Species Act works, but only if species are protected in the first place. Too often the fear of political backlash influences the agency’s decisions and keeps it from doing its job to save species. Clearly the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s two-decade refusal to protect this pretty butterfly has contributed to its demise. We hope it’s not too late to save it.
Success for an Endangered Wildflower, While Another Faces Great Challenges
Condors and eagles get the big headlines when it comes to endangered species and conservation. But plants become endangered as well. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists more endangered plants than animals.
One plant is coming off that list. The Bradshaw’s desert parsley (Lomatium bradshawii), a perennial herb found in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and adjacent areas, has recovered sufficiently to be delisted from the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The success of the desert parsley is an example of what happens when things are done right. The wildflower that grows in Northwest wet prairies was first listed as endangered in 1988, when the population of the flower dropped to 25,000 and was found at only 11 sites. Today, after more than 30 years of conservation work, the numbers have grown to over 11 million flowers that grow in 24 sites.
Things are different and concerning, however, in Arizona.
There are only four surviving populations of the Arizona eryngo (Eryngium sparganophyllum), an herbaceous member of the carrot family that lives only in wetlands called cienegas. Cienegas are sort of like oases of the southwestern deserts—spongy, wet meadows that exist incongruously in the arid landscapes.
Needless to say, these oases provide habitat for amphibians, migratory birds, even fish. And needless to say as well, we’ve managed to mess up most of the cienegas, leading to the precarious existence of the eryngo. More than 95 percent of the cienegas have been destroyed.
The overdrawing of groundwater where there are growing human populations threatens the existence of some of the remaining cienegas where the eryngo hangs on.
As I write this, the USFWS just announced that it is seeking public comments on the Critical Habitat Rule for the Arizona erygno. I urge you to click this link and have a say about this imperiled wildflower. It will only take ten minutes of your time and won’t cost you a nickel. Hey, at least hit the share button. Maybe somebody will do something.
UN Secretary-General Urges End of “Deadly Addiction” to Coal
This was published in The Guardian, but otherwise did not make it into the rest of the press. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres said it was high time for all the countries of the world to end their “deadly addiction” to coal.
“Once upon a time, coal brought cheap electricity to entire regions and vital jobs to communities. Those days are gone,” Guterres said in a video posted to the UN’s website. Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5 degree goal.”
Mr. Guterres emphasized three key points in phasing out coal. He urged:
All countries to cancel all current coal projects
Institutions to end international financing for coal mining and coal power and to give greater support for renewable energy in developing countries.
Public banks and investors in commercial banks or pension funds to shift investments to renewables.
Echoing the message of the Secretary-General was Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, saying that the transition to renewable energy sources goes hand in hand with improving access to energy sources in many parts of the world.
She noted that, worldwide, almost 790 million people do not have basic electricity, and 2.8 billion, about 40 percent of the world’s population, do not have access to clean cooking fuels. She said:
Right now, we’re at a crossroads where people do want to recover better, but they are looking for the best opportunities to do that. And we’re emphasizing investments in sustainable energy to spur economic development, create new jobs and give opportunities to fulfill the full potential.