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The latest AskTheScienceBlogger question is:

“I heard that within 15 years, global warming will have made Napa County too hot to grow good wine grapes. Is that true? What other changes are we going to see during our lifetimes because of global warming?…”

Answer under the fold….

I am not a big wine connoisseur, though I like an occasional glass of French burgundy, German riesling, Adriatic cabernet or Argentinian malbec. Also, I heard that wine is generally thought to be good for you (although you should take every claim in that article with a grain of salt, e.g., aboutmelatonin in wine).

I am not sure that 15 years is sufficiently long time for much change to occur, but, if I ignore that number and think more in terms of “however long it takes for global warming effects to get pretty darn strikingly hot”, I may try to tackle this. Let’s look at several different angles:

First, whoever wins the White House in 2008, Republican or Democrat, will have to face up to the threat and do something about it. Much of the rest of the world is already on board. So, perhaps, we will be able to slow down, at some time in the future perhaps stop, and maybe even reverse the effects. But in the short term, global warming will continue to occur.

Second, unless you are Rush Limbaugh or one of his listeners, you understand that global warming does not mean universal warming. In other words, some parts of the planet will get much warmer, some will get cooler and some will remain about the same – it is the global average that will go up, and the dynamic processes (e.g., the Gulf stream) will be altered. So, perhaps Napa valley will not warm up that much to affect the quality of wine.

Third, assuming that California does get much warmer, this will happen slowly and gradually. Wine-growers will have sufficient time to artificially select (or even use genetic engineering to make) heat-resistant grapes. Of course, you can just hear the gaggle of wine-critics screaming as the new varieties of grapes get introduced – some will love it, some will hate it. The market will also respond by making some of the new wines a big hit and others a big flop. Some big winemakers will go down in flames, some litle ones will take over as leaders of the industry. So, what’s new? That is how free market is supposed to operate. Some growers will make wines that customers like and that’s what counts.

Fourth, better and better wines will be made in places like Canada and Siberia. I say – more the merrier! More choices and more competition are always a good thing. Why have California, France, Italy and Australia dominate the world wine market, when one can get great merlot from Alberta or Lapland?

The way grapes will spread North due to global warming is related to a much bigger picture of wholesale remodelling of entire ecosystems. I have written in great detail about one of the mechanisms by which that happens, as well as pointed to some more specific examples in plants, birds and mammals.

Thus, practically every species on the planet will encounter gradually changing environments. As a result, all species will have to change – to evolve – in order to track those changes.

Your old predator moves away but a new one moves in, forcing you to evolve novel defenses. Your usual food moves away, but potential new food moves in, so you have to evolve adaptations to find it, catch it, handle it and digest it. You pollinator moves away, so you have to find a new way to reproduce, perhaps by luring a new pollinator, or using wind instead, or go extinct. Your fruit-eater moves away so there’s nobody big enough to eat and disseminate your fruits – do you rely on an occasional flood or do you evolve a smaller fruit or go extinct?

Thus, global warming, by wholesale remodelling of ecosystems, will trigger a lot of evolutionary change. Many species will go extinct. Most extant species will change substantially, and many new ones will emerge as the populations split while trying to track various environments across the globe.

What will make this very interesting is the sheer speed at which evolution will be occuring – right in front of our own eyes. Even Creationists will be able to see new species forming! The zoos of the future will have some really cool creatures…


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    July 27, 2006

    “Fourth, better and better wines will be made in places like Canada and Siberia. I say – more the merrier!”

    Hear, hear, mate! That’s exactly why I thought Nunavut Merlot had a nice ring to it.

  2. #2 greensmile
    July 27, 2006

    re melatonin in wine: big deal. the alcohol has a much stronger effect in disrupting sleep patterns than any melatonin that may be present.

    what is all this future tense stuff when speaking of wines from Canada? There are pro’s and con’s for visiting Ontario’s wine district but the wine is a distinct attraction. One of my dad’s best friends was in the oenology department at UC Davis and our visits to Napa valley were frequent…so I come by my snooty attitude about non-californian wines in an honest sort of way…and I STILL buy from Reif and Jackson-Triggs when I visit Niagara.

  3. #3 Cash
    July 27, 2006

    Well, this means I will soon be making some choice wines. That should attract the honies. Here I was trying to use Maxwell’s Equations to get them.

  4. #4 GUAGUAU
    July 27, 2006


  5. #5 Gorge Vintner
    July 27, 2006

    I anticipate global warming will cause the evolution of some splendid varietals, better than anything now existant. This is an exciting time for evolution!

  6. #6 Susan Sharpe
    August 31, 2006

    The scenario for global warming suggested here may be a bit rosy. “Evolve new strategies for reproduction.” The first time around, the flower and the insect evolved in tandem, over a period raning from 10,000 to a mliion years. They can probably do it faster. But in 100 years? I don’t think so. Some species are fleet of foot, or wing, and may be able to move north, but some species are rooted in place, so to speak.

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