The Intersection

Of Frogs and Ice Shelves


I haven’t blogged in the last few days–what happened here over Expelled has been quite a shock to my system, and I’m still trying to process it. I will have something to say about all that as soon as I’m ready, so prepare the expletives.

Meanwhile, though, I wanted to point out my latest Daily Green item, which is about two recent bits of climate change news–one, that we’re losing another Antarctic ice shelf, and two, climate change may not be the cause of tropical frog declines. I find the juxtaposition more than interesting:

In one case the impact of climate change is both dramatic and straightforward; in the other it’s murky and questionable. Global warming melts ice – that’s plain and simple. But what it does to diseases, or weather phenomena … that’s less so.

So when we talk about climate impacts, shouldn’t we highlight the safely obvious and dramatic ones? Rising temperatures, melting ice, rising sea level … you can’t really get around that stuff. The causal change is simple. It’s basic thermodynamics. It’s happening all around us, and it isn’t going to stop.

And what’s more, this is where the most unequivocally dangerous climate impacts lie – if we melt enough ice to get dramatic sea level rise, we can put our coastal cities at risk and irreversibly change the planet. There is no worse consequence of global warming than that, at least that I’ve heard of.

None of which is to say that frogs are unimportant – any more than hurricanes and tornadoes, two major weather phenomena that have been linked to climate change but also with high levels of uncertainty, are unimportant – or that climate change doesn’t threaten them. But at a time when we need to communicate clearly and unequivocally about the climate issue, isn’t the choice obvious? Shouldn’t we stick with what we know and not get into the mess of what we don’t – especially when climate change deniers and skeptics are constantly trying to find any possible scientific angle of attack?

You can read the full item here.


  1. #1 Environ
    March 27, 2008

    I read about the Wilkins Shelf breaking away, really scarey stuff to say the least. They equated the size to Manhattan I think.

  2. #2 Cal Harth
    March 27, 2008

    The breakup up of ice-shelves in the Antarctic is really alarming. The loss of amphibian species is another example of the canary in the coal mine. Something bad is happening and we are probably responsible.
    Please shrug off the nasty responses and keep blogging. The nastiest ones probably come from guys that have tiny penises.
    We used to have deafening spring chorus songs of frogs here. We have about 25 ponds and lakes on our farm. In the last few years the frog calls have declined by probably 98%.

  3. #3 Steve Bloom
    March 27, 2008

    Chris wrote: “And what’s more, this is where the most unequivocally dangerous climate impacts lie – if we melt enough ice to get dramatic sea level rise, we can put our coastal cities at risk and irreversibly change the planet. There is no worse consequence of global warming than that, at least that I’ve heard of.”

    I *strongly* disagree: The loss of biodiversity is by far the worst consequence, although of course it and sea level rise are somewhat correlated.

    Even ignoring biodiversity loss and just focusing on the impact on humans, I think the shift in the climate zones may be the worst impact (=> expansion of deserts into presently fertile areas), although that’s perhaps a contest with SLR-induced loss of estuary productivity. The loss of the large lowland hyper-productive ag areas like southern Bangladesh, the Nile Delta and the California central valley are nothing to sneeze at, but while I’m not sure how to compare them with the foregoing impacts they seem comparatively minor.

    The loss of coastal cities (in many if not most cases probably more like upland retreat over a period of time) is pretty small potatos compared to this other stuff.

  4. #4 Cal Harth
    March 27, 2008

    Steve Bloom,
    I totally agree with you about the issue of loss of biodiversity. Once a lineage of organisms is gone there is no recovery from the loss. If educated people don’t understand that I have to feel sorry for their lack of understanding.
    Ocean levels in a geological sense have always risen and fallen. I live more than a thousand miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has invaded to within 50 miles from where I live many times. Ocean levels change regularly, as well as climate.
    The problem is that such a high percentage of humans live so close to sea level. My home is right at 1000 feet above sea level so I’m not too worried.
    It seems like we are playing out the Malthusian predictions for our own species. I feel worse about the loss of diversity than something that will lessen human population numbers.

  5. #5 Coin
    March 27, 2008

    It seems like the reason to emphasize things like the frog story is that they outline that climate change will be creating change in lots of little, murky, minor ways. Since by nature the evidence for these things is less strong than for the larger items, it’s probably important not to oversell them– you are correct to worry, as you seem to be doing, that issuing too many warnings on little things which don’t come to pass will distract from and damage scientists’ credibility on the big things. But although the danger in overselling these things is real, there lie also dangers in ignoring these little things.

    The thing is the dramatic items may be, well… dramatic, but they’re also often distant. Icebergs are not part of most people’s daily experience. Most people probably wouldn’t think about polar bears at all if they didn’t show up in global warming stories. Coastal flooding is a bit more impacting on people’s daily experience, but it’s also distant in time, always predicted to be happening at some indeterminate point in the future. So if we do stick to these big unambiguous things, we run the risk of turning the effects of climate change into just an abstraction. We create this picture of climate change meaning just one big, distant apocalyptic catastrophe– in other words, catastrophe for other people.

    This picture is false, because it leaves out the extent to which climate change isn’t going to be just a disaster movie, but rather incorporate all kinds of little bitty pervasive changes intruding on people’s lives as all the systems tied to the mean temperature lever shift– things as small and basic as (if not this exact example) what kind of frogs live in one’s neighborhood. Some of these changes will be difficult to see coming or even specifically demonstrate that climate change is the originating cause, and many of them won’t even be negative, necessarily. But many of these changes will impact the average person’s lives in a way that glaciers don’t, and some of these changes, unlike loss of coastal cities to sea rise, are happening already. If we don’t communicate the potential nature of this small-scale pervasive change to people, we are not getting them the full story.

    It seems like it would be more productive to increase the degree to which science communicators emphasize that some of these predicted or reported side-effects of climate change are less certain than others, than to shy away from emphasis on the minor murky things altogether.

  6. #6 bob koepp
    March 27, 2008

    I agree that the loss of biodiversity is a very bad consequence of projected changes in climate or, more properly speaking, a consequence of habitat loss caused by a changing climate. But isn’t our 10+ thousand years of scraping away at the surface of the planet, otherwise called ’tilling the soil’, an even greater threat to habitats than a changing climate? And isn’t this threat growing exponentially, right along with human populations?

    As for human developments in coastal areas, we should right now be dismantling what we’ve wrought and rebuilding in less ecologically sensitive areas. We shouldn’t stop with coastal areas, though. We ought also be removing our phenotypic extensions from (at least) the flood planes of virtually all waterways larger than a trickle.

    And while we’re rebuilding our infrastructure, we might as well address that problem of habitat destruction due to tilling the soil. Transplanted population centers can incorporate vertical farms, freeing yet more habitat — not to mention providing a steady source of fresh, locally produced, pesticide-free food for the inhabitants.

    It’s a harsh thought, but maybe sea level rise will force something like this on us. Necessity is the mother of invention, or something.

  7. #7 Cal Harth
    March 27, 2008

    Bob Koepp,
    You have a good grasp of our current dilemna. I am one of the guilty ones who have scratched the soil. When I was young, farming was sustainable and based on the organic matter that we put back into the soil. Then it switched over to a petrochemical based industry and diversity was sacrificed.
    While I grew up we cleared several square miles of native vegetation for fields and pasture development. I have plowed (scratched the soil) as much as 500 acres in some years to plant crops.
    We live in a peneplain so erosian is not a big problem here. I do have serious disagreements with the agriculture in big corn-producing states like Iowa.
    Iowa on its own has consistently produced more corn than the second and third leading nations in corn productions in the world. Trouble is that for every bushel they produce two bushels of soil goes down to the Gulf of Mexico in the Mississippi river.
    Cargill and ADM are making money on it but it is not sustainable.
    We are not farming anymore but we eat like you suggest. More folks should.

  8. #8 Eric the Leaf
    March 27, 2008

    Correct. Habitat destruction is occurring unabated. It is largely due, as you point out, to the the introduction of agriculture and sedentary life resulting in applifying cylces of intensification of production and population growth for the past 10,000 years. And: “For the past 500 years Western scientific technology has been competing against the most rapidly and relentlessly intensifying system of production in the history of our species.” (Marvin Harris, 1977)

    The most recent cycle of growth accompanies the exploitation of fossil fuels and furthered by the “green” revolution involving enhanced agricultural yields in large part due to hydrocarbon-based fertilizers and pesticides.

    But not only our food, but virtually every facet of modern industrial civilization is utterly and completely dependent upon fossil fuel.

    So now we have two distinct, but interrelated problems. The first is growth (not too mention the very foundations of our economic system) in both population and resource consumption. The second is the finite nature of our resources, which does not only include hydrocarbons, but many other minerals (including those essential for many alternative energies), water, and topsoil.

    Facing those limits, which in the case of petroleum is NOW, soon to be followed by natural gas and coal, we find ourselves in an untenable predicament. In this sense, relocation is irrelevant, and improving infrastructure begs the question–which infrastructure, in what time frame, and to what end? More growth?

    Nor has what I have just said particularly controversial. The data, not widely appreciated with respect to oil, but also natural gas and coal, is there for the taking. It does not require a good deal of resourcefulness to find expert analysis, but one must have at least some background to evaluate the evidence.

    Now, all this is occurring WITH OR WITHOUT the added problem of global warming. So an energy policy, or any other policy in which the objective is focused entirely on the mitigation of global warming misses entirely the central connundrum of modern human culture, and indeed the continuation of industrial civilization.

    In this short (long) post, I have only scratched the surface. What concerns me, is that while “environmentalists” are well-intentioned indeed, they have virtually ignored these other realities to pursue the clearly significant problem of global warming. However, these other realities are about to come front and center, and in my opinion will relegate concerns about global warming to the back burner (so to speak).

    If asked, I will further point out why there can be no effective response to global warming. Frankly, I’m not certain that there are “solutions” to these other problems as well–at least not in terms of what people normally consider solutions.

    In this discussion, a few sound bites will not due. It is my opinion that The Intersection, in view of its mission, is poised to take these issues to the Scibling community. That community is largely mute in this regard. But it is raging in the world where people understand energy, human population, and the the sweep of human cultural evolution. Indeed, where the world of science and society intersect.

  9. #9 SLC
    March 28, 2008

    Where’s our friend lance to deny that this means anything?

  10. #10 Earthceuticals
    March 30, 2008

    Yes that they are not both directly related to global warming in no way means we are not in someway responsible for the frogs in another unseen way. The canary in the coal mine analogy in my mind sums this up well. It should be seen as a sign that there is a problem. Yet, we know htere is a problem, we just aren’t ready.. or forced to confront it… yet.

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