Climate Change Already Impacting Wildlife in PA

  • The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is an insect extremely harmful to Eastern Hemlock Trees. Photo courtesy Mark C. Whitmore

March 8, 2013

There are now 395 parts per million of carbon dioxide molecules in our atmosphere. That number is up almost three parts per million, the second highest jump in recorded history. According to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, even small changes in weather—like warmer, wetter winters—are impacting wildlife now. And it’s not just polar bears.

“We think that climate change is the biggest single threat to wildlife this century, and that it’s already transforming our landscapes across America,” said Dr. Amanda Staudt, lead author of the report. One example in Pennsylvania is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an insect that feeds on and kills Eastern Hemlock trees. It’s already impacting hemlocks, but warming weather is making a bad situation worse.

“Many pests and disease-causing pathogens are increasingly able to survive and thrive during winter, which allows their population to explode the following year,” Staudt said.

The woolly adelgid can only survive in temperatures above -20 degrees. Thanks to a warming climate, many more Eastern Hemlocks will be living in areas where the thermometer moves above that threshold. That could mean an acceleration in the trees’ decline.

Of course, climate change isn’t the only imminent threat to wildlife. Deforestation, development, and poaching are all encroaching on certain species.

The Allegheny Front will explore the vulnerabilities of Pennsylvania’s wildlife in an upcoming series, which kicks off with an interview in the field with a Northeastern bulrush researcher.

Read the transcript »Close the Transcript


FRAZIER: Climate change is coming—and one bracing question is what impact will it have on wildlife? The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple has been following this question and she joins me now to talk about what she’s found and about a series of stories she’ll be doing for our show on the topic.

Hi Kara, how are you?

HOLSHOPPLE: Hi Reid, I’m good, thanks.

FRAZIER: Kara, I think a lot of us are used to the idea that species can be affected by plain old loss of habitat—through deforestation or suburban sprawl—but you’ve been talking to scientists about climate change and how that will impact species. I understand you heard from Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. What did she have to say about climate change and how it will impact wildlife?

HOLSOPPLE: Amanda Staudt is the lead author of a new report out by the National Wildlife Federation called “Wildlife in a Warming World.” What she said was, if we were talking about climate change a couple of years ago, she would be talking about polar bears, but these days, things have changed quite a bit.

STAUDT: It’s becoming increasingly apparent that climate change is beginning to affect wildlife here and now. We think that climate change is the biggest single threat to wildlife this century, and that it’s already transforming our landscapes across America.

FRAZIER: So, can you give us an example of how climate change is making it harder for a species to survive closer to home? Is there anything in Pennsylvania that kind of illustrates this point?

HOLSOPPLE: Sure. One good example from Pennsylvania is the eastern hemlock tree. Staudt talks about the threat of the hemlock woolly adelgid, which is an insect that actually attacks the hemlock tree and eats it. The hemlock woolly adelgid can’t live in temperatures that are below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and as the atmosphere warms and many hemlock trees will be living in areas where the temperature no longer goes below that threshold, the hemlock woolly adelgid will become more pervasive.

STAUDT: Climate model projections for this temperature increase over the coming century indicate even the entire range of the tree could be above this temperature threshold, which would lead to a very wide decline of that tree species in the United States.

FRAZIER: Kara, you’re putting together a series on threats to wildlife and plants for our show. Can you tell me a little bit more about that series?

HOLSOPPLE: We’ll be focusing on plant and animal species that are vulnerable to climate change, but also other risks like deforestation, or even poaching. The first story in the series is about northeastern bulrush, which is a species that lives in vernal pools or kind of marshy areas. It’s a plant, it’s about hip high, and it is very vulnerable to climate change. I spoke with a researcher, Dr. Mary Ann Furedi, and I actually went out with her in the field to count the number of northeastern bulrush in this area of the Tioga State Forest.

FRAZIER: What was it like? Was it muddy or something?

HOLSOPPLE: It was very muddy. I almost lost my boot in the vernal pool.

FRAZIER: That sounds like kind of a messy job.

HOLSOPPLE: It was messy, but it was funny! Dr. Furedi is very passionate about the work that she does. A lot of these scientists and researchers do their work in a very solitary way when they’re out in the field, so it’s great to be able to go out and take a look at what they’re doing and get a better idea about how these species are faring.

FRAZIER: Alright, we’ll look for a line in the budget for hip waders for you. That was The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talking about impacts climate change will have on plants and animals in Pennsylvania. Listen for a series of stories she’s producing for our show in the coming months. I’m Reid Fraizer sitting in for Jennifer Jordan, and this is the Allegheny Front.