In a very frank and data-rich webinar, fire ecologist Hugh Safford (USDA Forest Service and research faculty at Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis) offers “Some ruminations on fire and vegetation trends in California”. He explains the causes of the dramatic increase in megafires and what can be done about it.
The webinar was co-sponsored by the Yolo Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice and Cool Davis and presented on May 5, 2021.
Safford’s presentation starts at 13:23 of the video. The equally enlightening Q&A session begins at 48:20.
Here is a summary of some of the key points:
The annual burned area has been rising rapidly since the 1980s, almost entirely in northern California.
This is largely due to fire exclusion caused by the removal of Native Americans as land managers and increased drought and record vegetation dryness caused by climate change.
Since 1999, burning over a million acres/yr now occurs regularly; this had not happened before 1999.
Pre-EAS (Euro-American Settlement) burning by Native Americans totaled up to FOUR million acres/year (but these were low severity fires that primarily burned the understory and smaller trees).
“Euro-Americans, when they showed up in the 1850s, and for that matter today, had no idea how important fire was to the functioning of these ecosystems and they feared it and felt like it was something they needed to stop. After a hundred years of that, it’s really biting us in the butt now because now we have jungles of fuels, we’ve cut most of the big fire-resilient trees out of the system, and when we get the ignitions start we can’t stop the fires anymore. Until about the 1990s, it was easy to put fires out in the forests.”
Pre-EAS forests were at least 40% old growth; current forests are only 6% old growth and highly vulnerable to high severity fires, as they are 4-5x denser than pre-EAS.
“Every single fire projection we found in the literature predicts bigger fires, more fires, and more severe fires, basically until we’ve burned so much of California that there actually isn’t much woody vegetation left to burn.”
Expect the loss of conifers and an increase in non-native grassland.
Changes already underway: loss of blue oak woodland, ponderosa, yellow pine, and subalpine pine; increase in hardwoods. Loss of sage scrub and chaparral in southern California. Many burned areas are quickly invaded by non-native grasses and will not recover. Incense cedar and white fir may become more dominant trees in California forests.
Fires in the Coast Range are now destroying chamise and blue oaks with limited evidence of re-sprouting.
In the short run, there’s not a lot we can do to manage climate, but there’s a lot we can do to manage fuels.
There’s been a huge renaissance, especially among Native tribes, to use controlled burns to manage forests. California’s new fire resilience plan supports the use of controlled burns. Northern Australia has had great success allowing Aboriginies to manage forests. Opportunities are limited, however, because of development.
The combination of drought cause megafires in the Sierra to produce “Hiroshima-type landscapes”, burning old growth.
How to stop fires: Forest thinning is critical, but it’s not economical to harvest small trees, so the government will have to subsidize it. For example, we can use the cut trees for biomass energy, as it done in Scandinavia. This is the only way to save large old growth trees and healthy forests. “We have to cut a lot of trees. We don’t have a choice…. We can create forests that can handle large fires, or we can sit around and watch it all vaporize.”
Looking at Version 8.0.8 (March 12, 2021) of the ABA Checklist, 116 of the 1,123 species, or a little over 10%, are named after people. Of the 116 in the ABA area, two (Bishop’s Oo and Bachman’s Warbler) are considered extinct, one is an introduced species in Hawaii (Erckel’s Francolin), and 32 others are Codes 3, 4 or 5, meaning they occur rarely in the ABA area. The remaining 80 are all Code 1 or 2 and can be expected to be seen in the ABA area regularly. The following analyses focuses on these 80 familiar species.
The first thing to note is that these 80 species come from a wide array of families and species groupings. As with all birds, Passerines are dominant, making up 49% of the list. Digging deeper, seabirds and Passerines with limited ranges (mostly warblers and sparrows) are over-represented—because they were described relatively late in the European discovery process, when honorific naming became more in vogue.
The AOU (American Ornithological Union, the precursor to the AOS) began proposing English names in its first checklist in 1886, but didn’t complete the effort – and the names were not universally accepted – until the 5th edition in 1957. Meanwhile, the Latin scientific names have always followed a clear rule: the Latin name is set by the first published description of a species. The “bird names for birds” movement is focused on English names only.
Eponymous naming was rare in the 18th century, limited to just four of the 80 species, all emanating from Russian/German and British field work, primarily focused on the far north. The four early birds are Steller’s Eider (1769), Blackburnian Warbler (1776), Steller’s Jay (1788), and Barrow’s Goldeneye (1789).
Then, in 1811, Alexander Wilson named a woodpecker and a nutcracker after Lewis and Clark, and honorific naming was off and running, peaking in the mid-1800s.
Eponyms for the 80 Code 1 and Code 2 species are overwhelmingly honorific. Only six are named after the describer himself (Wilson’s Warbler, Sabine’s Gull, Brandt’s Cormorant, Townsend’s Warbler, Gambel’s Quail, and Cory’s Shearwater), and it’s not clear that even all of them intended for the species to have an eponym; the Latin names for the warbler, cormorant, and shearwater suggest otherwise. Wilson himself called his warbler the Green Black-capped Flycatcher and the western subspecies went by Pileolated Warbler (coined by Pallas) as late as the 1950s.
The namers were widespread – 36 different people provided the 80 names, though four stand out. John James Audubon provided fifteen of the eponymous names, Spencer Baird and John Cassin each provided seven, and Rene Lesson four. Together, these four ornithologists were responsible for 41% (33/80) of the honorific names in this analysis. In addition, many eponymous subspecies were coined by Baird.
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The majority of the namers were connected to each other, with many naming birds after colleagues, who in turn named species after other colleagues. Lesson described Audubon’s Shearwater and Oriole; Audubon described Baird’s Sparrow; Baird described Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay; Woodhouse described Cassin’s Sparrow; Cassin described Lawrence’s Goldfinch; Lawrence described LeConte’s Thrasher.
There are no examples of a quid pro quo, where two people named birds after each other, unless you count Audubon’s Warbler, described by Townsend in 1837; Audubon returned the favor with Townsend’s Solitaire the following year. Or Coues, who christened a sandpiper after Baird in 1861; four years later, Baird named a warbler after Coues’ sister, Grace.
Despite Audubon’s dominant role in honorific naming, no Americans honored him (excepting Townsend with Audubon’s Warbler); only Lesson, a Frenchman, did.
A third of the species (27 of 80) have Latin names that do not match the honorific English name. In most instances this is because the bird was accidentally described twice. Most often, they were not originally intended to have an honorific name. A person described the species and gave a descriptive Latin name, then later another person described the same species and gave an honorific name. For example, Lichtenstein described A. aestivalis in 1823, then Audubon described it again in 1839, naming it Bachman’s Sparrow. When it was realized the two were the same species, the Latin name provided by the first publication held, but, at least in these instances, the honorific English name was also given—a kind of consolation prize to the second describer. Thus, what was called Pinewoods or Oakwoods Sparrow became Bachman’s Sparrow. It’s apparent that oversight and review of “naming and claiming” was limited.
Among the 80 species in this analysis, this double-describing happened at least 18 times. Curiously, six of these were by Audubon and account for 40% of his honorific bestowments. These are Harris’s Hawk, Bachman’s Sparrow, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Harris’s Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Smith’s Longspur. MacGillivray’s Warbler was intended to be Tolmie’s Warbler as described by Townsend; the other five have descriptive Latin names. There is one other double-described species that has a Latin honorific—Scott’s Oriole, Icterus parisorum, originally named after the Paris brothers. Most of the others have descriptive Latin names.
Cassin’s Auklet (P. aleutica) and Cassin’s Kingbird (T. vociferans) were first described, respectively, before Cassin was born and when Cassin was just thirteen. Clearly the original describers did not intend to honor Cassin. However, by the 1886 AOU checklist both carried the Cassin moniker, though there is no record that I could find how or why that came to be (and even a co-author of the auklet’s Birds of North American species account didn’t know the answer).
Interestingly, two species have Latin names derived from indigenous words: pipixcan of Franklin’s Gull is Nahuatl for the gull or possibly the Aztec region in Mexico; sasin of Allen’s Hummingbird is Noo-chah-nulth (Nootka) for hummingbird, a reference to when the species was lumped with Rufous Hummingbird. The gull was described twice, which is how it ended up honoring Franklin. The hummingbird was split, providing an opportunity for another name. Ironically, Allen’s, not Rufous, Hummingbird always bore the Noo-chah-nulth name which emanates from Vancouver Island.
Correlated with the timing, a clear regional pattern emerges. Because the common eastern species had already been described a century earlier, western species with honorific names outnumber eastern ones nearly ten to one. A map plotting the year of description with the core of the species’ range mimics European expansion – and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans – across the continent in the nineteenth century.
As for the honorees, most were naturalists, either doing field work or promoting it (70 of 80), most were Americans (55 of 80) or at least had spent some time in North America (add ten more). French collectors dominated the hummingbirds.
Only six species honor women—or girls. Blackburne is the early outlier, a British naturalist honored by one of the German ornithologists in the late 1700s. Neither spent time in North America; the type specimen comes from South America. Curiously, the eponymic title is not in the possessive form (e.g. Blackburne’s Warbler). For reasons unknown to me, the Latin name was changed from blackburniae to fusca before 1910.
During the surge of honorifics in the mid-1800s, the only females honored were friends or family, and they only got first names. Anna, age 27 when the hummingbird was named in her honor, was the wife of an ornithologist and a lady-in-waiting in the court of Emperor Napoleon III’s wife. She was described by Audubon as a “beautiful young woman, not more than twenty, extremely graceful and polite.” Virginia was the wife of William Anderson, the original collector; she was honored by Baird at Anderson’s request. Grace, also honored by Baird, was Elliot Coues’s sister. Lucy, age 13, honored by James G. Cooper, was Baird’s daughter.
We don’t return to female scientists – and last names – until the 1900s, with Scripps, who was honored in 1939, and her bird didn’t reach species status until 2012.
Most of the honorees have no obvious indications of a checkered past (66 of 80), though most of these were quite comfortable associating with, or honoring with bird names, those who were slaveholders, white supremacists, or actively involved in killing or removing Native Americans, even while these actions were hotly debated and contested at the time among whites—and universally opposed by Blacks and Native Americans. As early as 1920, the entire concept of eponymous bird names was challenged.
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The dominance of western species among honorific names with morally objectionable pasts is no accident. Many of the ornithologists working in the West were attached to US military expeditions or other surveys of colonization, such as railroad surveys or the border survey after the Mexican-American War. They often served as doctors while doing naturalist work on the side. Many were likely looking for a vehicle to get into the field.
Others were active combatants, with the naturalist work coming on the side. William Clark, after the famous 1803 expedition, played a leadership role in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans for three decades. Abert served as a soldier under John Fremont’s Third Expedition and likely participated in the Sacramento River massacre of Wintu families, deemed horrific by their contemporaries. General Winfield Scott, not a naturalist in any way, was honored by Couch with an oriole precisely for his role as the Commanding General of the US Army, which included overseeing the arrest, detainment, and expulsion of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears.
But why did they turn to honorific naming when their predecessors did not? Was it the spirit of conquest, of erasing the former occupants of the land, that gave them the presumption and bravado to name even the birds after each other? After all, mountains, rivers, valleys, and large regions of land were all being re-named and claimed as European.
White supremacy permeated the sciences. Crania Americana was published between 1839 and 1849 by Samuel Morton, a colleague of several of the naturalists. Townsend collected skulls for him. During the same era, to support the Indian Removal Act and other similar policies, the Mound Builder Myth, asserting that Native Americans were not actually native, but that North America was originally populated by Europeans, was widely taught in grade schools across the land. The land was originally European, so the story went. This theory was eventually laid to rest thanks to the efforts of John Wesley Powell, but only after most Natives were detained in concentration camps.
In short, the scientific fields were permeated with white supremacy and a sense of white ownership. Ornithological research found itself interlocked with US military endeavors and, on the Western frontier, far from Eastern progressive voices advocating abolition and respect for slaves and Natives. In this climate, honorific naming eventually ran amok, often foundering on the rocky shores of slavery and ethnic cleansing, aka manifest destiny.
Caveat: Researching the origins of species’ names is challenging, especially for those described more than once or subject to taxonomic revisions. Corrections from knowledgeable readers are much appreciated. Regardless of errors, the larger picture, the trends regarding time and place, still hold.
Note: Updated June 2, 2021 to include Blackburnian Warbler.
At the American Ornithological Society (AOS) Congress on English Bird Names on April 16, 2021, a host of prominent organizations and individuals endorsed “bird names for birds”, a widespread effort to rename eponymous or honorific species names with more descriptive names, focusing on their physical or ecological attributes. For example, Wilson’s Warbler could become Black-capped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire might become Northern or Juniper Solitaire, and Kittlitz’s Murrelet would probably be re-named Glacier Murrelet.
While specific new names have not yet been chosen, representatives of the American Birding Association (ABA), National Audubon Society, as well as David Sibley and Kenn Kaufmann, all heartily endorsed developing a process to make the changes, noting that new names would engage a larger audience, contribute to greater equity and inclusivity among birders and the interested public, and could aid in public communication and conservation efforts.
The effort has grown out of the national reckoning on racial equality in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Movements to change names are underway with regard to parks, mountains, streets, other wildlife, and even rock-climbing routes. Current names generally go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during European expansion across North America and recall an era of conquest, when species and landforms were “discovered” – and some named after the individual who documented them, or after their friends and colleagues.
Sibley commented that, the more he learns about the names, “the more they cast a shadow over the bird” and “the name doesn’t mean just the bird anymore. They have baggage.” Out of respect for people and the birds, they “should not have to carry a reminder of our own fraught history.” Choosing between stability and respect, Sibley stated “I choose respect.”
Name changes over social justice concerns began last year when McCown’s Longpsur was changed to Thick-billed Longspur, after widespread outcry because McCown was a Confederate general and involved in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. A proposal in 2018 for that name change was roundly rejected.
Name changes for these reasons are not new; most birders can probably recall the switch from Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck in 2000. At that time, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the precursor to the AOS, asserted that the name change was not for reasons of “political correctness” but merely to conform with usage elsewhere.
Bird Names for Birds, a group of interested birders, was instrumental in reaching out to the larger organizations to participate in the congress. In their words, “Eponyms (a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named) and honorific common bird names (a name given to something in honor of a person) are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have—for example, Bachman’s Sparrow—represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.” They describe such names as “verbal statues” that should be removed.
Jordan Rutter of Bird Names for Birds argued that, when reaching out to the public to protect an endangered sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow has much less appeal than an alternative name rooted in local ecology that the public could identify with. Kaufmann pointed out that Bachmann was a pro-slavery white supremacist and that the species was formerly known as the Pinewoods Sparrow.
In the AOS’s own language, “The Community Congress opens the discussion on the complex issues around eponymous English Bird Names…. The specific aim of the Community Congress is to provide an opportunity for a broad range of stakeholders from the birding and ornithological community to share their viewpoints, including challenges and opportunities from their perspectives, to best inform future next steps to address the issue of naming birds after people.”
Keepers of various ornithological databases also participated in the Congress, including representatives for eBird, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and the Bird Banding Laboratory. While noting potential complications with name changes (and changes in four-letter banding codes), they all agreed the hurdles were not insurmountable. Indeed, name changes, as well as taxonomic lumps and splits, occur every year, with name changes being the simplest of the three to address in data management. eBird currently supports bird names in 47 languages, including 14 different versions of English. Where Americans see Black-bellied Plover, Brits see Grey Plover.
Marshall Iliff of eBird pointed out that the effort is also an opportunity to clean up old taxonomic messes, pointing out that Audubon’s Shearwater has been used for eleven different combinations of nine different taxa. In this case, he said, fresh names for specific taxa will provide clarity, not confusion. He embraced a worldwide effort to “dig into the essence of each species” to “find inspired and appropriate names.”
For now, the effort will be limited to primary eponymous English bird names. The effort will not include secondary names (e.g., American Crow, named after the continent, which was named after Amerigo Vespucci). Other problematic names, such as Flesh-footed Shearwater for a bird with pink feet, were not discussed.
Many suggested using Native names for species, though most stated this could be challenging because 1) names from Native languages may have been lost, or 2) most bird species’ ranges span multiple historic aboriginal territories and languages, creating a conundrum over which indigenous word to use. The exception to this is Hawaii, where indigenous names are already in widespread use. Among mammals, moose, raccoon, and skunk are all derived from Algonquian.
Looking at Version 8.0.8 (March 12, 2021) of the ABA Checklist, 115 of the 1,123 species, or a little over 10%, are named after people. Of these, 2 (Bishop’s Oo and Bachman’s Warbler) are considered extinct, and 20 others are Code 4 or 5, meaning they occur extremely rarely in the ABA area (though three of these are regular in Mexico, within the AOS area). The remaining 93 are all Code 1, 2, or 3, and can be expected to be seen in the ABA area regularly.
Here are the 113 non-extinct species from the ABA Checklist.
There are a lot of reasons why I’m moving from California to Washington, including family and other personal considerations. But one reason, one big reason, is California’s rapidly changing climate.
It was late February in the Coast Range of northern California when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Dust swirled around my car in the dirt parking lot at Cold Canyon. The car thermometer, warmed by a sun that felt imported from Palm Springs, said 87 degrees; it was actually only 77. A hint of ash, omnipresent since The Fire last summer, remained in the air.
The hillsides were green with the new growth of non-native grass, which was responding to a recent heavy rain. That was deceptive. More than half the rain we’d had in the previous eight months came in that single event. We had six inches of rain in all of 2020. Looking beyond the grass, nearly every tree – blue oaks and gray pines – on the hillsides was dead, burnt black and orange monuments to a previous era. For our local blue oak woodland, that era ended last year and, given that recruitment of saplings is unlikely due to heat, fire, and cattle, it was an era that will never return.
Massive die-offs are eliminating blue oaks from the southern third of their range. Black oaks are marching up the Sierra, displacing Ponderosa pine, which are marching up, displacing firs. Everyone is on the move. Oak woodlands are becoming oak savannahs, oak savannahs are becoming grasslands, grasslands are becoming rocky high deserts. Arizonification is happening quickly, thru heat, drought, and ultimately, thru fire.
Virtually all of the east slopes of the Coast Range between San Francisco Bay and the Trinity Alps has burned in the past ten years. In the Sierra, one can practically predict where the next fire catastrophe will happen, because it hasn’t burned yet (hint: Lake Almanor, Placerville, Arnold).
It was a beautiful day—for April. But February has become April, April has become May, and June, July, August, September, and even October and November have become unrecognizable. Every year more heat records are broken. Hottest summer, hottest month, most days over 100, most days over 90. The list goes on, each year breaking the records set the previous year. Weather data is normally highly variable; now it is a straight line—warmer and warmer. And smokier.
My cape honeysuckle and bougainvillea, both planted with a degree of optimism outside their recommended zone, used to die back so badly in the winter that each spring I was tempted to declare them dead and pull them out. Now they bloom year-round, looking like they’re in a courtyard at a hotel in the tropics. We haven’t had a real freeze in seven winters.
The songs of lesser goldfinches on my street are a depressing warning. I can’t take two steps outside without seeing or hearing a bird that reminds me that our climate has seriously changed. Western tanagers, house wrens, and turkey vultures are regular in winter now. The lesser goldfinches have come out of the arid hills and are quickly becoming one of the most ubiquitous nesting birds in Davis. (I know this definitively because one included an imitation of a canyon wren in its song.) What’s more, at least four Say’s phoebes, essentially a high desert species, are scouting for nests in town now. A fifth arrived on my block last week, singing as if on territory. They’ve been doing this for a few years and their numbers are growing.
I’m leaving. I’ve lived in California fifty-five years but it’s no longer the state I grew up in.
We’re headed to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. We are fortunate to be able to do so.
I feel like a frog in a boiling pot. I’m getting out. I’m saying goodbye to California, but I feel it has left all of us without saying goodbye to anyone.
I do believe that Homo sapiens may ultimately win the climate battle and bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 300 ppm or something. But that’s a hundred years off. And there’s no guarantee we can stop the tide of Greenland and Antarctic ice melt to prevent sea level rise. In the meantime, in the next 50 to 100 years, it’s going to get a lot warmer. And we may ultimately lose New York City, Singapore, Mumbai, and every other low-lying coastal city. My new home is fifty feet above sea level. Well, probably forty-nine and a half now.
As the climate warms, different thresholds are crossed for different species at different times. For the Lesser Goldfinch, that time seems to be now—both in the core and northern edges of its range, where the species is increasing, and in some parts of the southern arid regions, where it is decreasing.
As I prepare to migrate myself from Davis, California to Port Townsend, Washington, I’m serenaded by Lesser Goldfinches every time I step outside. This is a new thing, a warning of coming heat and smoke brought by a beautiful voice. A more open and arid country version of the American Goldfinch, until five or ten years ago, Lesser Goldfinches were sparse breeders in Davis. I would get a few of them mixed with Americans at my feeder in winter, but I’d have to go west to the more arid edges of the Sacramento Valley, or up into the hot dry foothills, to find them in the breeding season.
They arrived in my neighborhood as nesters about five years ago. This year, 2021, they seem to be the most ubiquitous singing bird, setting up terrorities throughout the town. Friends in Sacramento have reported the same. This comes after several years of record heat and lack of rain (only 6″ in all of 2020).
Here’s what the eBird data says. For comparison, Northern Mockingbird, one of the most common birds in town, is reported from about 20 eBird locations in Davis each June (ranging from 16 in 2015 and 14 in 2016 to 18-22 in the more recent years as eBird users and reports increased). Using mockingbird as a metric for Davis, it’d be fair to say that 20 sites represents close to 100% presence throughout the town, and that number was probably 25% lower (i.e. 15 sites) in 2015. Lesser Goldfinches have increased from reports from four sites in June of 2015 (representing about 20% of the town) to 17 sites in June of 2020 (representing 85% of the town). It feels like it will be 100% this year.
They are not the only arid-country species increasing in Davis as a breeder. Nesting Say’s Phoebes have expanded up from the south, with multiple pairs in Woodland each year (and it’s looking like Davis this year as well).
As with so many less-migratory species, Lesser Goldfinches are expanding north into the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Their colonization of the Columbia River Valley began in the 1950s, with the first state of Washington record in 1951; they are now established around Portland, The Dalles, and in the vicinity of Clarkston on the Idaho border. They remain rare elsewhere, but increases in records have been dramatic in recent years. In the northern Puget Trough region (Chehalis north thru Puget Sound to Canada), June records have increased from 1 in 2015 and 2016 to 10 in 2020 (as reported on eBird). While they have clearly gained a toe-hold in Olympia and Puyallup in the South Sound region, in 2020 they made appearances in Victoria and Vancouver, Canada (not shown in the data because these records were in May, not June).
This is a pattern seen in other resident and less-migratory species. Many of those that were already growing before detectable climate change (around 1985) have expanded noticeably since then. Anna’s Hummingbird is the most dramatic example.
Further east, Lesser Goldfinches are moving due north from Yakima and Kennewick into the Okanagan Valley. June records in this region have increased from zero in 2015 to eight in 2020.
In the Mojave Desert, Lesser Goldfinches have declined. Iknayan and Beissinger (2018) reported them from only 43% of 61 study sites, compared to 68% historically. This is part of a massive avian community collapse in the Mojave Desert, as extreme aridity is pushing many species beyond their limits.
Renewable diesel already accounts for 20% of California’s diesel supply and is projected to grow well beyond 50% by 2024, expanding to include jet fuel, where it is called “sustainable jet fuel”. Renewable propane is also produced during the refining process. Renewable gasoline, unfortunately, is still not economically feasible.
Increasingly, refineries in California are ramping up to produce RD from local feedstock. Two of the state’s largest refineries, Phillips 66 and Marathon in the Bay Area, are currently closed, using the Covid downturn to retrofit their operations into making RD. They will each produce 20% of the state’s diesel in the form of RD; they will completely cease using crude oil as an input. Other smaller refinery conversions are underway in southern California.
At the state level, California’s ever-lowering cap of tradeable permits under the AB32 cap-and-trade program is finally biting hard enough to change incentives. Carbon credits are now yielding about 30 cents/gallon and is likely to rise. Because this comes from traded permits, it is not a direct payment from government funds.
Combining federal and state incentives, a refinery converting from conventional to renewable diesel reaps an additional $1.30/gallon. If the Phillips 66 project goes to its full 800 million gallons/year, that’s at least a billion dollars each year in subsidies – from tax credits and tradable carbon credit sales.
California has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions 15-20% since the peak in 2004. This has been achieved during a period of significant economic and population growth; emissions per gross domestic product are down about 45%. Because the transportation sector has been among the most challenging for reducing emissions, the RD revolution will go a long way to helping California reach net zero by 2050. The Biden Administration is using California’s carbon reduction measures as a model for the nation.
Two recent papers concluded that many breeding bird species in southern California and Nevada deserts have declined dramatically due to climate change.
In their abstract, Iknayan and Beissinger (2018) summarized, “We evaluated how desert birds have responded to climate and habitat change by resurveying historic sites throughout the Mojave Desert that were originally surveyed for avian diversity during the early 20th century by Joseph Grinnell and colleagues. We found strong evidence of an avian community in collapse.”
Of 135 species assessed (which included some wintering and migrating species, as well as breeding species), 39 had significantly declined; only one (Common Raven) had increased. This was in stark contrast to similar assessments they conducted of Sierra and Central Valley sites, where more species had increased than decreased and there were no overall declines (not to say there weren’t winners, losers, and range shifts within those regions).
Detailed analyses suggested less rainfall and less access to water was the primary driver. Habitat change only affected 15% of the study sites and was of secondary importance. They found no evidence of expansion of species from the hotter, drier Sonoran Desert (e.g. Phainopepla, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow) into the Mojave Desert.
Consistent with a community collapse, declines were greatest among species at the top of food chain — carnivores such as Prairie Falcon, American Kestrel, and Turkey Vulture. Insectivores were the next most impacted, and herbivores the least. But the declines affected both common and rare species, both generalists and specialists.
A follow-up study by Riddell et al (2020), also involving Iknayan and Beissinger, focused on the thermoregulatory costs — the water requirements to keep cool — for the declining species. They found that “species’ declines were positively associated with climate-driven increases in water requirements for evaporative cooling and exacerbated by large body size, especially for species with animal-based diets.” Larger species get much of their water from the insects they eat. They estimated larger species would have to double or triple their insect intake to meet their water needs, though insect abundance is lowest July thru September.
Iknayan and Beissinger conclude, “Our results provide evidence that bird communities in the Mojave Desert have collapsed to a new, lower baseline. Declines could accelerate with future climate change, as this region is predicted to become drier and hotter by the end of the century.”
The ponds at the Davis Wastewater Treatment Plant have been one of the top birding spots in Yolo County for over 50 years. With 212 species reported via eBird, only two other sites in the county have recorded more (Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands).
Here’s a short video clip from October 2020 illustrating the amazing bird life. A family of Sandhill Cranes walks among thousands of geese, ducks, and shorebirds while the calls of curlews filled the air. A Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier buzzed past. Though the ponds are no longer part of the water treatment plant operations, they still collect rain water and provide habitat. Over 14,000 ducks have been counted on them during the annual Christmas Bird Count. The list of rarities includes everything from Slaty-backed Gull and Arctic Tern to Vermillion Flycatcher.
But it’s not too late to try to stop it. Here’s what you can do:
1. Call or email each City Council member and ask them to rescind their original vote. Their phone numbers are available here. We need three of them to overturn the original decision. Will Arnold has expressed regret for his vote and Gloria Partida was skeptical at the outset. We also may have an opportunity after the election with new Council member to overturn this decision.
Gloria Partida — firstname.lastname@example.org
Will Arnold — email@example.com
Dan Carson — firstname.lastname@example.org
Brett Lee — email@example.com
Lucas Frerichs — firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Call or email Valley Clean Energy Alliance board members and ask them to reject the bid from BrightNight for a new power contract. Their emails are here:
Angel Barajas — email@example.com
Dan Carson — firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucas Frerichs — email@example.com
Gary Sandy, Vice Chair — firstname.lastname@example.org
Don Saylor — email@example.com
Tom Stallard, Chair — firstname.lastname@example.org
Researchers from UC Davis collect acorns in arid west Texas to plant on their campus in northern California. They estimate their climate in 2100 will be similar to that of Barstow or even Phoenix today. City staff from a town near Portland, Oregon travel to California and Arizona for seedlings they can take home and plant along their city streets. They are preparing for Portland’s weather to become like Sacramento today.
With these regions breaking new heat records annually – Sacramento just topped 90 degrees for the 110th day (and counting) in 2020—and given that trees take decades to mature, the race is on. Birds can fly, mammals can walk, but trees expand their ranges very slowly. Most acorns from an oak end up within a few hundred yards from their home tree.
Climate velocity, the speed at which ecotones are shifting north, is much faster than that. Our climate is changing ten to one hundred times faster than during a global warming event 55 million years ago known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During that “rapid” spike, palm trees successfully migrated to the Arctic circle, but they had thousands of years to make it there.
While trees can’t walk, they can die. Range contraction of trees along their southern xeric (dry) edge is happening in the American West right with the speed of climate change. Blue oak die-offs are widespread in the southern third of their range. From California to Colorado, conifers such as Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir are disappearing from lower elevations. To quote Davis et al (2019), “In areas that have crossed climatic thresholds for regeneration, stand-replacing fires may result in abrupt ecosystem transitions to nonforest states.” When people talk about California becoming Arizona, the cleanup hitter in that process may be fire, but the first batters are heat, drought stress, and bark beetles. After fires, decreased soil moisture and increased vapor pressure deficit (VPD) associated with climate change are leading to reduced probability of regeneration (Davis et al 2019). In short, many forests are not coming back.
Researchers have discussed facilitating tree migration due to climate change for over a decade (Aitken et al 2008). For over a hundred years, botanists have recognized regional differences within the same plant species, and simple garden experiments have shown that local varieties do better. The standard rule of thumb has always been that local varieties are best; they are adapted to the local ecological niche. Now that is changing.
Recent research is showing that trees are now in the wrong places; the climate has shifted past them. Valley oaks, white fir, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, Western hemlock, and lodgepole pine seedlings all do better when removed from their original home and moved north (Aitken and Bemmels 2015).
The local trees are becoming misfits in a world that is changing around them. Many researchers are hesitant to fully embrace assisted migration; introducing non-native species has a horrid track record. But they are beginning to study “assisted gene flow”, moving hardy trees from the southern end of a species’ range to the north end. Cities, on the other hand, are beginning to see trees as more than just aesthetically pleasing; they are critical infrastructure, providing shade and reducing urban temperatures. So the cities and towns are moving faster, boldly cultivating trees from the dry Southwest into the Pacific Northwest.
Tree migration is also critical for the range expansion of animals. Without the trees and other vegetation, many birds, mammals, and other forms of life have no habitat rungs on the ladder to enable them to move north as well. Anna’s Hummingbirds now winter in Canada and even Alaska, largely due to ornamental plantings. The Oak Titmouse, on the other hand, is dependent on oaks, tightly constraining its ability to expand north. It may be that, in the coming decades, oaks and other tree species planted in cities and towns will provide critical refugia for a wide variety of birds and insects seeking cooler climes.
When climatologists predicted that Sacramento would have Phoenix’s weather by 2100, and Portland would have Sacramento’s, they didn’t explain the ecological implications nor the process. Yet it’s apparent that an awful lot of trees need to disappear for the Sierra to look like the rock, grass, and cacti that make up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix.
A new “new normal” every year
This ecological transformation, the likes of which would normally take a thousand years even during a rapid warming event, is happening, driven by rapid climate change. All those trees are flying away in the form of ashes and smoke.
The process, in human and ecological terms, is brutal. Californians experience a new “new normal” each year, each one stunning in its own right. In 2017 we were shocked when 6,000 homes burned in Santa Rosa, killing dozens as people fled in their bathrobes. Despite decades of fires in suburban California, there had never been anything of that magnitude. Before the year was out, the Thomas fire became the largest in state history as it burned thru Christmas and New Year. The next summer, the Carr fire stunned us with an EF-3 firenado that generated 140 mph winds. A few months later, the past was eclipsed when the entire town of Paradise burned, killing 85 people. That may be the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in history.
After a reprieve in 2019, we arrive at 2020, where acreage burned has exceeded two million and three million for the first time. We keep having to adjust our vertical axes to make room for each new year. Five fires burning at the same time in 2020 qualified for the top 20 largest fires in the history of the state. Three of those, still burning as a write, are first, second, and fourth on the list.
Each year has its macabre highlights. This year, over 300 people were rescued by military helicopters, many at night high in the Sierra. For the first time ever, all 18 national forests were completely closed to the public. The National Weather Service had to create a firenado warning. A dystopian pall of smoke created hazardous air from California to Canada for weeks, forcing people into their homes with all windows shut. And my hometown, Woodland Hills, hit 121 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County.
We have heard for years that, with longer and hotter summers and declining snowpack, fire season has grown by months. In 2006, Westerling predicted such an increase in fires that the forests of the western US would become net carbon emitters. The US Forest Service now plans for fire year-round.
A series of academic analyses lays out the factors and processes of Arizonification. Decreased summer rains, as well as warmer winter and spring temperatures, are creating dry and stressed trees. But that’s not all. Summers that have become 1.4C (2.5F) warmer have led to an exponential increase in atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD). It’s getting drier and, more importantly, vegetation is getting drier. This leads to big fires. Williams et al (2019) noted, “The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful.” The Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, occurred during some of the lowest vegetation moisture ever recorded. Add to that hot dry winds and vulnerable PG&E transmission lines, and the Paradise disaster looks predictable.
To summarize, slightly warming temperatures, even in winter and spring, and less summer rain lead to an exponential increase in dry vegetation, which leads to an exponential increase in large fires, which leads a conversion of habitat from forest and chaparral to the grass and rock-dominated landscapes of arid desert mountain ranges. Sacramento becomes Phoenix. The Sierra and Coast Ranges become Camelback Mountain.
Arizona State University fire historian Prof. Stephen Pyne calls this a new epoch, the Pyrocene. “The contours of such an epoch,” he writes, “are already becoming visible through the smoke. If you doubt it, just ask California.”
Abatzoglou and Williams (2016) conclude, “anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.” Williams et al repeat this, “Given the exponential response of California burned area to aridity, the influence of anthropogenic warming on wildfire activity over the next few decades will likely be larger than the observed influence thus far where fuel abundance is not limiting.”
In layman’s terms, it’s going to get worse until there’s nothing left to burn.
Here is a partial list of recent research on the increase of fires in California and the western US.