The smell of death was heavy in the chilly air, as four of us rafted through the convergence of the Canning and Staines Rivers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of northeastern Alaska.
We were still miles from the frigid Arctic Ocean, leaving the daunting Brooks Range in our wake while looking ahead at the sweeping expanse of the coastal plain. We were all in agreement that it must be a rotting caribou carcass, but all I could think about was what might be feeding on it.
The Carrizo Plain National Monument
is the last of California’s historic grasslands.
Several days later we reached the Arctic Ocean, ice floes creaking and cracking as they floated by in that dark cobalt-blue water. A seabird biologist stationed on the remote coastline for two months told us an emaciated polar bear swam ashore and wandered several miles up the Staines River to that putrid caribou carcass, feeding there for a few days before heading back to the ice.
As Arctic ice continues to melt at alarming rates, keystone species like the polar bear are forced to adapt to a warming climate, going to extremes to satiate their voracious appetites. Whatever your thoughts are on climate change, whether it’s man-made or a natural wonder, there are telltale signs that it is amongst us and picking up steam. Closer to home where biodiversity still abounds, there are definite causes for concern. With the impact we humans have had on the environment, I don’t believe I’m going out on a limb if I say we’ve had a hand in all of this.
A break in the fog
Plant ecologist Dr. Kathryn McEachern was standing beneath a dense ceiling of fog on the west end of Santa Rosa Island. The second-largest island off the California coast was cloaked in dewy overcast, and McEachern was gauging the level of fog drip on some of the isle’s rarest endemic flora.
McEachern has been studying plant ecology and climate change for the U.S. Geological Survey in the Channel Islands National Park, and especially Santa Rosa Island, for close to 20 years. Since the removal of Roosevelt elk and Kaibab deer from the island by the end of 2012, however, she’s only recently gotten a more accurate reading on fog drip and its effects on island flora ranging from island paintbrush and poppies to long-living manzanita that are 100 years old.
“I think all the species are kind of saying the same thing,” said McEachern. “Definitely, not being browsed and trampled is a better situation than with animals there, but one of the things that surprised me was that fog seemed to be a very important driver of how well plant populations do, no matter if it’s a tiny plant with a tiny population or a big plant with a tiny population.”
McEachern has been studying fog drip over the last four years. A typical fog season would stretch from May into September, but extended drought conditions are shortening the season. She’s learned that some plants will only grow where there’s fog, but as fog changes those plants dependent on fog die off.
• A backpacker explores the water levels in a
low-flowing creek in Ventura’s backcountry.
• Island oaks like this stand in Lobo Canyon on Santa Rosa Island,
rely on fog drip during the summer months
to sustain themselves through the dry season.
• Bishop pine forests are found on Santa Cruz Island,
but are fighting pine bark beetles due to persistent drought.
• Endangered blunt-nose leopard lizards are indicator species
for climate change in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
She compared coastal redwoods in Northern California to the endemic island oaks on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands and the bishop pines on Santa Cruz, species that grow where there’s fog. With persistent drought, however, trees like the bishop pine are heat-stressed and dying off.
“This opens it up to attack by the pine bark beetle and the fungus that lives with the beetle,” she continued. “It burrows in under the bark of the tree and carries the fungus that actually attacks the living part of the tree.”
The rare stand of Torrey pines on Santa Rosa Island also depend on fog and are currently doing well. There’s only one other grove like it in the world, located in San Diego. The removal of ungulates has given baby trees a chance now that they’re not getting trampled. Fog is vital to these trees in drought situations. It’s as important as actual rainfall. The Torrey pines grow throughout the summer in response to fog moisture, but what will continued drought do to these open-crowned trees?
McEachern admitted that fog drip research doesn’t exactly sound romantic. Standing under a tree in the fog, you get pretty wet. The bigger the tree, the more it rains.
That’s not the case on the ridgelines of Santa Rosa Island, which were left barren of vegetation by elk and deer. Thus, nothing is catching moisture as the fog blows over the remote isle. McEachern wants to plant endemic flora on the ridgelines, but she needs to know where the most fog is. To do this, she sets up five fog drip stations at various locations across the island, using artificial structures to capture fog to see how much water is captured. That determines where the restoration effort will occur. Those stations have been running for four years now.
Observations from the ground and satellite data have shown during the fog season that as land surface cools off it holds more fog. In the summer at dusk, the fog drip increases through the night, especially from midnight to about 3 a.m. A moisture collector the size of a gallon coffee can is used, and during the foggy months it collects a hal- gallon of water overnight.
“It really amounts to a light rain all night long,” she said. “Our measurement techniques are pretty crude. What we have seen in these drought years is that the fog season starts later and ends earlier, and there’s less fog drip as you go further south.”
Counting the leopard’s spots
On Ventura County’s northern fringe, the Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the hottest, driest places in California, and according to climatologists 2014 was the warmest year on record. The Carrizo Plain is also one of the last sanctuaries for one of its most cunning predators. The endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard benefits from thriving in the last of California’s historic grasslands protected within a national monument. Like so many endangered species listed throughout North America before climate change reared its ugly head, however, all those species listed need to be studied again due to an ever-increasing warmer climate, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about already.
Dr. Barry Sinervo has been conducting massive surveys on blunt-nosed leopard lizards for the past four years. Throughout their fragmented range in the San Joaquin Valley, Sinervo is studying the effects climate change is having on one of the handsomest reptiles in the west.
“They’ll lay their eggs, but if there’s no water in the soil, they’re going to get hammered,” said Sinervo, who has been a biology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since 1997, “but in my estimation the Carrizo Plain is the best habitat for the blunt-nosed leopard lizard during climate change.”
Surveys begin in April and consist of Sinervo and his team locating quality habitat and marking off transects that are three-quarters of a kilometer across and three-quarters of a kilometer long, and then hopefully locating 20 adults within each transect.
Sinervo said that the populations are still there in the Carrizo Plain, but there are drought affects. They’re also studying climate change and its effects on the vegetation that blunt-nosed leopard lizards prefer, like coyote bush and salt bush, and how these spotted reptiles are confronting thermal and water stressors in a region that received less than four inches of rain last year.
“If there’s no rain in the winter the season starts early,” continued Sinervo. “Everything is moving early. What’s troubling is the monsoons have stopped spinning in the northern part of their range. We’re losing winter precipitation and summer precipitation.”
For blunt-nosed leopard lizards in the Carrizo Plain, the national monument is a double-edged sword. The challenge is that they live in a pan in limited elevation range but in good habitat. Yet they can’t disperse out of the valley to colonize other habitat because they’re surrounded by the Temblor and Caliente Mountain Ranges, where elevations reach over 5,000 feet.
“The Carrizo Plain is critical,” explained Sinervo. “Where can we find another Carrizo if it comes to extinction?”
Riding out the drought
It was near dark and I needed to locate some water soon. I was down to the last half of my last water bottle and most, if not all, of the side canyons along the Sespe Creek in the Los Padres National Forest were void of any viable springs.
Then I found one gurgling beneath a lone cottonwood tree, steep, crumbly shale clinging to both sides of the narrow draw. I breathed a big sigh of relief as winter’s chill engulfed the canyon. There’s nothing like good drinking water in the woods.
“Drought years like this are a big deal,” said Kevin Cooper, wildlife biologist for the Los Padres National Forest. “Everyone was talking about El Niño, but as it turned out it was a moderate El Niño, which turned out to be dry. The last several Januarys and Februarys have been too warm.”
Cooper also said this year’s rain patterns have been highly variable, that the lack of stream flow and high fire danger continue. These days, water is as good as gold in the forest, 2010 being the last of the region’s wet winters. He continued by saying that chaparral plants like manzanita, scrub oak and sages, oak trees, and conifers like the Jeffrey and Sugar pine trees are dying off.
The forest is home to a wide array of inhabitants, with several species listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The California condor and desert bighorn sheep are two species that have come back from the brink in the Sespe Wilderness, but there isn’t a species in the national forest that isn’t feeling the continued pinch of extreme drought conditions.
“Wildlife is scratching along,” said Cooper. “Groundwater is a problem and all wildlife suffers. The more mobile species do better than others.”
During times like this, the Forest Service constructs something called “guzzlers” to combat the drought, a water catchment where water runs off the roof and drains into a tank and is made available to an array of wildlife.
“It’s not a fix,” clarified Cooper. “This is an issue across the entire county.”
Other species, like the yellow-blotched and tiger salamanders, the red-legged frog, steelhead trout and the arroyo toad, have a tough time of it and hunker down during an extreme drought event, although they don’t require much to survive. So if it does rain even a little, these amphibious creatures can make the most of it and still produce their young.
“They take a huge hit with this much drought for this long,” explained Cooper. “But if there is some level of groundwater, they can tuck down pretty far. Some species are long-lived and they only need a wet spot to survive.”