The Polar Bears of Dutchess County | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Polar Bears of Dutchess County 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:32 pm

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All the scientists at IES think there’s good reason to believe maple trees will cease to be a component of the forests in the Hudson Valley. They say it has little hope of keeping pace with the climatic shifts. Trees can’t pick up their roots and migrate. Their only means of relocating is limited to seed dispersal. Right now, the maples live in the Eastern Deciduous Forest (deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall), which occupies the eastern half of the US and southeastern Canada. The northern boundary blends into the Northern Boreal Forest in New England and southern Canada, which is dominated by hardy, cold-loving conifers. As Jenkins points out, the boundary between the two is a deep one. “It’s a boundary between two different soil types, different amounts of rockiness. And it’s a boundary between species with very different ballgames, different ways of being a species.”

The affects of that change are really best-guess predictions, and those predictions are what fuel the debate on global warming. The culture of science is to ask questions, intended to encourage further study. This uncertainty can be capitalized on to create a media debate. For instance, Jenkins points out, “It may be that, for a tree, being out of equilibrium with climate has occurred for the major part of its geological history, rather than being a death sentence for it. Being 500 miles from where you’d like to be for a slow-moving organism may be business as usual.” On the other hand, IES’s Dr. Richard Ostfeld expresses the pessimistic view that even if the sugar maple isn’t killed outright, as the climate warms, it will get out-competed by other tree species that are more tropically adapted. “Uncertainty exists,” he says. “We shouldn’t claim that it doesn’t. Our uncertainty, though, is about how bad global warming is going to get and, in the meantime, we don’t have the luxury of endless time.” As the polar bears’ vanishing habitat is to the Arctic, so the maples are the Hudson Valley’s best example of climate change impacts.

Ostfeld is a senior scientist and animal ecologist at IES. For the past decade and a half, he’s monitored the relationship between elements in the forest ecology and Lyme disease. Fifteen years—a very brief time on the ecological scale—is beginning to be a sufficient amount of time for Ostfeld to document real climate change in the interaction web he studies.

Every few years, the oak trees, which are dominant in the Hudson Valley, produce a bumper crop of acorns. White-footed mice, which are ubiquitous forest rodents, favor acorns as a food source. And the mice, it turns out, have a large impact on the ecology of their habitats. “They are the main source where ticks pick up the bacterium that causes Lyme disease,” says Ostfeld. So if there are a lot of mice, ticks are more likely to pick up the bacterium, and the risk to humans increases. “And where climate change comes in,” Ostfeld says, “is in possibly increasing the frequency with which these oak trees produce the acorns.” There’s usually two or three years between acorn events. According to scientists’ calculations, it takes a certain length of time to store enough carbon through photosynthesis to have the energy to devote to reproduction—which is what acorns are. “If that carbon storage hypothesis is true,” says Ostfeld, “then almost certainly as the climate warms, we expect these acorn years to be more frequent or potentially more intensive when they happen.”

This year, for the first time in IES’s records, acorns were produced two years in a row, and mouse populations are at unprecedented levels. “Lyme disease seems to be growing fairly rapidly in Ulster County right now,” says Ostfeld, “but Dutchess and Columbia Counties have among the highest numbers of cases and rates of anywhere in the world.”

An additional component of the ecological web Ostfeld studies is forest fragmentation. By inserting housing developments, industry, and recreational facilities into fractured forests, people are placing themselves in the centers of highly risky environments. Increasing carbon emissions, excessive acorn production, and an exploding white-footed mouse population has created a “perfect storm” for the proliferation of Lyme disease.
This concerns Ostfeld not only from a public health standpoint, but also in terms of its self-perpetuating properties. IES’s scientists regularly engage in grant proposals, and Ostfeld described one he was writing for the National Science Foundation. Bringing together a team of natural and social scientists, the study seeks to investigate the questions: Does the imminent threat of Lyme disease influence human attitudes about nature? When faced with a natural threat, will people continue to find the environment ethically and aesthetically important to protect? Or will they experience a fear-induced alienation causing them to cease caring and even seek to destroy or undermine the natural world? If the latter is true, then ongoing forest fragmentation and development could become a self-perpetuating outcome of climate change.

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