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Climate Changes We Respond

Climate Changes We Respond

Looking back on the record heat of 2012, Research Frontiers asked a cross-section of University of Arkansas faculty to look forward to the mid-21st century. How is climate change affecting their field of study and their own research? Taken together, their responses offer a glimpse at how diverse disciplines are addressing a more turbulent future.

Jean Henry
associate professor of community health promotion
department of health, human performance and recreation

While physical impacts of climate change can be clearly observed, one impact that is often overlooked is the link between climatic and environmental change and emotional and mental health and well-being.  For example, recent research has explored how changes in the local and regional landscapes around Inuit communities in northern Canada are disrupting the ability of Inuit to continue to practice and participate in culturally — and socially — important land activities such as hunting, fishing, foraging, trapping, and traveling on snow and ice.  Conditions that have previously supported the health and well-being of Inuit populations, such as spending time on the land, have been changing so rapidly in recent years that individuals and communities are being negatively affected.  Peoples closely relying on the natural environment for economic, spiritual, social, and cultural reasons, such as the Canadian Inuit, develop profound attachment to the land and a heightened sense of place. The loss, or dramatic alteration, of places can have profound effects, both physical and mental, on the people who inhabit them.

Public health professionals assert that effective response strategies for mitigating the effects of climate change will pair top-down advocacy on health and climate at a global level with bottom-up public health actions that bring health and climate co-benefits.

Alan Mantooth

Alan Mantooth
Distinguished Professor and the Twenty-first Century
Endowed Chair in Mixed-Signal IC Design and CAD
department of electrical engineering

Looking at NASA imagery of the polar ice caps melting, it is clear that global climate change is occurring.  As the summers get warmer, our environmental controls, such as air conditioning, are used more, which requires more energy. When extreme winters occur, we require more heat to keep us warm and comfortable. These power demands, coupled with the growing population, mean power generation is something that we must take a serious look at.

As the power grid is further strained by increasing demands due to climate change, it will become less reliable.  Outages will become frequent, and rolling brownouts and blackouts will be common.  Eventually, aggressive power management schemes, including rationing, will be used. Hospitals will take the top priority and residential areas will have among the lowest.

We need to work now to develop and implement better power generation, storage and use strategies. All options should be considered. Distributive generation systems are viable systems. Small generation points are interconnected, such as in a computer network, each taking up part of the load. The systems, capable of supporting large-scale operations, are more reliable and robust, because if one goes out, the entire system does not collapse.

We have to avoid cookie-cutter answers; not all areas are going to be suited for the same power generation techniques. Here in northwest Arkansas, for example, wind power isn’t viable, but out on the plains, it is. The best solutions for each location are based on the available resources.

While the solution may not be the same everywhere, the problem is. The increasing demands on the power grid will soon surpass the supply, and if new solutions are not found, then the standard of living we have grown so accustomed to will no longer exist.

David Longer

David E. Longer
professor
department of crop, soil and environmental sciences

We have experienced more frequent and intense levels of rainfall and more serious and prolonged drought events, coupled with dramatic temperature fluctuations. Many agronomic crops in the United States and worldwide have experienced serious crop yield losses in recent years, and 2012 will prove costly as well, once final harvest numbers are in.

The good news in all this is that most plant species have a broad base of genetic diversity that can be, and is being, utilized to bring about changes at the physiological level through genetics and molecular biology. The department of crop, soil and environmental sciences is using this science to improve water-use efficiency in soybeans, to reduce the need for excessive pest control applications and to develop crop growth systems that minimize carbon dioxide emissions.

Longer added that the Crop Sciences Society of America’s position on the influence of climate change on global cropping forecasts includes strategies to enable crops to respond, adapt and survive a wide range of varying growth environments. Researchers will gain greater understanding of plant response and adaptation, develop new agricultural production systems, and quickly disseminate breakthroughs to prevent extreme yield losses and economic disasters.

Kim Smith

Kim Smith
University Professor
department of biological sciences

Global climate change is having a variety of effects on birds around the world.  The impacts appear greater as one moves from the tropics toward the poles.  The most serious problems are in the Arctic, where warming of the waters is disrupting the link between food and breeding in many marine birds.  Most seabirds depend on cold-water prey to feed their young, and warmer waters mean that those prey items are greatly reduced or replaced with often lower-quality prey items during the feeding period. In the Antarctic, the melting of sea ice is affecting populations of penguins, which depend on sea ice for breeding sites.  Concerns have also been raised for birds that nest at high elevations in mountains of tropical and temperate regions.  As climate change causes vegetation changes, those high elevation habitats may disappear, leading to extinctions of animals associated with mountain tops.

Climate change also seems to be affecting the phenology, or timing, of migration in many species of birds.  In Fayetteville, Jacob M. N. Smith was a florist who kept track of the annual arrival of birds in his garden from 1844 to 1878.  Similarly, William Baerg, an entomology professor who was also an ornithologist, recorded the arrival of birds in Fayetteville in the 1920s.  Compared to those two studies, ruby-throated hummingbirds and whip-poor-wills are arriving about two to three weeks earlier today.  In the case of the hummingbird, this would suggest an earlier timing of flowering plants, and, in the case of the whip-poor-will, an earlier timing of emergence of flying insects, both possibly due to rising spring temperatures.  This earlier arrival of migrant hummingbirds is reflected in earlier arrival on the breeding grounds farther north.

John Clark

John R. Clark
University Professor
department of horticulture

The improvement of plants through breeding is a combination of science and art, which uses genetic variation for important traits combined in a complementary manner to create a “better” plant for society. The environment can have a tremendous effect on trait expression. The U of A Division of Agriculture fruit-breeding program focuses on varieties to benefit Arkansans, but has activities in multiple states in the United States and other continents. The environments in these locations change from year to year, and major changes are to come over the substantial time between now and 2050.

How will this affect plant breeding? Substantially, because as environments change, the plants being worked with perform in a different manner. As areas of the world develop more moderate winter temperatures, cold hardiness of the plants will not be as critical, and a crop variety might be grown in an area, although thirty years prior it would not have been considered “adapted.” Further, if temperatures in the growing season increase, heat tolerance will be a top priority. Plant breeders will work with this shift in a number of ways, including broad testing of breeding products in multiple environments to identify the best plants for the targeted climate. Genetic variation for future improvement will need to be maintained or introduced into the breeding effort to allow introgression of adaptation traits.

The basic art and science of plant breeding will not change with climatic shifts, but the approach will evolve. Molecular techniques to more precisely identify adaptation and other important genes will play a role in future plant improvement. Climate change will be a challenge that will provide for an exciting time for plant breeders.

Hoyt Purvis

Hoyt Purvis
professor
Lemke department of journalism, and former director, Fulbright Institute of International Relations

International relations are at the center of climate change issues, and climate change is very much an issue in international relations. That may sound like a riddle, but it is a reality.

In an ever-more interdependent world, traditional diplomacy is not always effective in tackling global threats. Established alliances and procedures are not necessarily suited for dealing with a threat such as climate change, when the cause is not the ambition of an “enemy” power or ideology. Addressing the climate change challenge will require thinking beyond national environmental effects and considering the broader international impact.  It’s an issue that is not going to go away, and a major part of the challenge is bridging the divide between rich and poor countries and recognizing that a global response is required.

It is not just an opportunity for international cooperation, but also a compelling rationale for such cooperation, a need that will become more obvious in the years ahead.  Effective international agreements are imperative because of the global scope of the challenge, and the United States will need to play a leading role.  Shifting geopolitical alignments may emerge and rising nations – China, India, South Africa, Brazil – will have to take a more pro-active role.

Climate change is an inherently international issue and one of the century’s greatest challenges for the international community.

Despite the inertia that sometimes characterizes international relations when competing national interests are involved, the accelerating problems related to climate change will make cooperative efforts among governments and non-state actors inevitable.

Jeannie Whayne

Jeannie Whayne
professor
department of history

Over the next 50 years, as government, industry and individuals deal with floods and droughts, agricultural historians will grapple with the implications. Climate change has the potential to greatly speed the trend toward the concentration of land ownership and intensify “scientific agriculture,” the use of chemicals and experimentation with genetically modified organisms. Even if the planet warms only slightly, the need to adapt will work to the benefit of entities capable of adjusting quickly, serving those with the resources to develop new technologies to aid farmers in new drought areas, for example.

Agriculture will assume a grander scale while, paradoxically, becoming much smaller.  Landholding patterns and the size of farm machinery will increase in size, but fewer individuals will be involved.  The current trend toward “portfolio” plantations, ones in which large investment companies purchase agricultural lands, will intensify because only the largest entities will find it cost-effective to purchase the expensive machinery and chemicals necessary to farm on such a wide scale.  Because many small investors who have funds in agricultural lands in their portfolios will be unaware of their connection to a given agricultural community, they will be unlikely to concern themselves with the environmental impact of pesticides on farmlands or with the erosion of farm communities as a result of population decline.

On the other hand, the sustainable agriculture movement will become more popular and more viable as consumers demand alternatives to chemically treated foods. Consumers will demand products they consider safe, and small producers will expand their niche market.

In the end, trends developing in the late 20th century will continue, including the tension between feeding the world and the methods used to accomplish that laudable goal.  In this context, agricultural historians will be charged with the responsibility of assessing the consequences and charting a path through the complex world of late 21st century agricultural expansion.

Photos by Russell Cothren

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