A 3,700-year old bristlecone pine cannot lie

Rising temps are forcing plants to adapt, whether they want to or not. But humans have brains -- let's use them!


Andrew Leonard
November 18, 2009 10:47PM (UTC)

A couple of things to think about while mulling over the news that any action (or even debate) on a U.S. climate bill has been pushed to next year.

From the abstract for "Recent unprecedented tree-ring growth in bristlecone pine at the highest elevations and possible causes," published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

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Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) at 3 sites in western North America near the upper elevation limit of tree growth showed ring growth in the second half of the 20th century that was greater than during any other 50-year period in the last 3,700 years. The accelerated growth is suggestive of an environmental change unprecedented in millennia.

RealClimate offers an accessible summary. Bristlecone pines are quite popular with paleoclimatologists who specialize in analyzing tree rings because they live for thousands of years. The bottom line -- in recent decades, bristlecones have responded dramatically to warmer temperatures.

Meanwhile, from Europe comes the news that wine-makers are stressing out about global warming.

From AFP:

"All over the world, alcohol levels are going up," said British wine critic Jancis Robinson at the WineFuture conference, citing just one problem producers are facing as a result of rising temperatures.

"Champagne alcohol levels are becoming embarrassingly high," she added, meaning that the heat which is raising the alcohol content changes both the texture and personality of a wine.

One answer for wineries: Just as the Western Bristlecone will likely respond to higher temperatures by spreading to higher elevations in a natural example of adaptation, wineries too could move north to milder regions as temperatures rise. Of course, if that happens, we would no longer be able to call champagne by the name "champagne," since the grapes would no longer be grown in the province of Champagne. But that's quibbling! Why worry about global warming? Just like the bristlecone, we'll just move on up.

There is no question that humanity will adapt to climate change. Even if the climate bill of an environmentalist's dreams were enacted into law tomorrow, we're not going to stop rising temperatures in the near future. The best we can legitimately hope to do, at this point, is slow the rise. So along with cutting back greenhouse gas emissions and using energy more efficiently, we will also be forced to adapt. And maybe the tundra will bloom with corn and Norway will be pumping out faux-Bordeaux.

But there are degrees of adaptation. For example, after a hurricane-propelled storm surge wipes out your beachfront home, you might decide to move inland. A little costly, a little risky, perhaps, but hey, you're adapting. But what if you decided to move before your house was destroyed? Or what if, even better, your society cut back on greenhouse gas emissions enough so that sea temperatures didn't rise quite so quickly, giving you more time to figure out whether you wanted to move, or build a stronger house, or erect a sea wall?

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One of the key things that separates humans from most other animals is that our brains feature highly developed frontal lobes that enable us to think about the future and take proactive action to ward off misfortune. A bristlecone pine or a grapevine can't do that. But we can. We can adapt the hard way, by letting climate change wreak havoc, or the easy way, by doing what we can to give us more of a chance to properly adapt -- and maybe, just maybe, keep champagne in Champagne.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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