A Nazca Booby, a tug, a barge, and a pit: A climate parable

At 9:30am on August 17, that is, yesterday, I got a text from another birder. A Nazca Booby had just been seen from Discovery Point near Seattle. What’s more, we knew exactly where the bird was now; it was perched on the bow of a barge being pulled by the tug Seaspan Raider.

The Nazca Booby, atop the barge, photographed by Matt Stolmeier, captain for Outer Island Excursions.

The Nazca Booby is a tropical seabird that breeds exclusively on the Galapagos Islands. When not nesting, it occurs at sea in the eastern Pacific, generally between central Mexico and northern Peru.

Breeding (orange) and non-breeding (blue) range of the Nazca Booby.

This was Washington’s third record. The first, quite possibly the same bird, was on August 14, 2020, in pretty much the same part of Puget Sound. The second was a few weeks ago also off Seattle. That one was an immature, not an adult, so we know it was a different individual. It then showed up off Victoria, providing Canada with its third record.

The Nazca Booby first arrived in the United States in California in 2013. I actually played a role in that first record, a dead beachcast bird found in the aftermath of an oil spill. Working for the state’s spill response, I brought it to the attention of the California Bird Records Committee and had experts examine the carcass for identification. That bird was not a one-off event; it was the beginning of an invasion. There were a few scattered records in the following years, followed by an explosion of 26 records in 2018 and 21 in 2019. After that, California removed the species from its “review list”. While some of these records may have been the same individuals, it is remarkable that a tropical bird previously unheard-of in the US was suddenly widespread. Oregon got its first two records in 2018 and 2019.

Sea surface temperature (SST) of 66.1F off the Washington/Oregon coast.

Checking sea surface temperatures, I see that the water off the Washington and Oregon coasts is reaching 66F in places, only 4F cooler than on the south side of the Galapagos. Zooming out, it is easy to see a route from there to here where the bird never had to encounter sea surface temps under 60F. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is in the low 50s, but it does approach 60F near Seattle.

I opened the MarineTraffic app and quickly located the Seaspan Raider. It was southwest of Edmunds, northbound at 7.3 knots. I calculated it would arrive off Port Townsend between 1 and 2pm. Birders scrambled, heading to various coastal promontories on both sides of Puget Sound. I headed to Point Wilson, where Puget Sound effectively ends and meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The tug, bound for Canada, would have to pass by me here.

Reports came in. The bird had flown off the barge. It was in the water off Edmunds. It took off. It was seen from both sides. No one knew where it was.

Tracking the tug using the MarineTraffic app.

This wasn’t the only booby in the Salish Sea at the moment. A Brown Booby had been photographed a few days earlier near the San Juans. That was yet another tropical seabird that had already invaded the US, with records from over forty states, including Alaska. Two decades ago, this would have been unimaginable. And this summer, 2022, was already noteworthy across the Midwest and East Coast for the mass invasion of waterbirds typically found only in Florida or the Gulf Coast. Limpkins, Wood Storks, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills and many others were showing up hundreds of miles north of their previously known ranges.

Scrolling thru the American Birding Association Rare Bird Alert nationwide posts, limited to just mega-rarities, here is what pops up: Brown Booby in Oklahoma, Neotropic Cormorant in North Carolina, Brown Booby in Wisconsin, two Swallow-tailed Kites in Ohio, Limpkin in Wisconsin, Neotropic Cormorant in Michigan, White Ibis in New York, Wood Stork in Pennsylvania, Heermann’s Gull in Alaska, Limpkin in Illinois, Nazca Booby in California, White Ibis in Nebraska, etc. And that doesn’t even get us back to August 1. These are all birds, mostly aquatic birds, well north of their normal ranges.

Our current rate of climate warming hasn’t been seen since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago. Then, there were alligators within the Arctic Circle. Kind of like Nazca Boobies are now a thing in Puget Sound. Actually, our current rate of warming is much faster than then. During the PETM, the climate warmed 5C in five thousand years. The current rate of warming is eighteen times faster. Then, no one would have noticed. Now, there is 1C of warming – and, with it, dramatic changes in climate and ecology – within the lifespan of a single bird. Some seabirds are showing us that they can keep up, thanks to their ability to fly long distances. I’m not sure about the alligators. Or birds that depend, say, on oak trees. The birds can fly, but the oaks can’t.

Two hours passed. I was ready to give up and head home, my only consolation being “MAMU CF”, a Marbled Murrelet making a provisioning flight across the Sound, carrying a fish to its single chick somewhere on a moss-covered Doug fir branch a hundred feet above the forest floor, probably in the Olympic Mountains. I’d only seen that once before. Much of their range in California has been lost to fires in the past five years, so this Olympic chick is important.

The original photo of the Nazca Booby on the barge, by Alex Meilleur.

One birder, who was unable to search for the Nazca Booby, called some of the local orca boats, as he worked on some of them. He let them know about the bird, as some were near it. About twenty minutes later, texts came in. They had re-found it! It was back on the same barge, now approaching Marrowstone Point. I spun my scope south. There, beyond the ferry lane, I could make out the red and white structure of the Seaspan Raider, pulling its barge, all blurry and shimmering in the distant heat mirage, slowly chugging toward me.

Taking advantage of the outgoing tide, the Seaspan Raider was now hitting 9 knots. It is powered by two Niigata 6m G25HX diesel engines. I don’t know what kind of gas mileage it gets, but, because it presumably refueled in Washington, most of its fuel is likely conventional diesel, but a small component may be renewable diesel.

Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel. Biodiesel can be mixed with conventional diesel, but only in very small amounts, like 2%. Renewable diesel, on the other hand, is molecularly identical to conventional diesel. It’s a relatively new invention. Made from non-petroleum sources, such as plant and animal material, it is to conventional diesel what corn syrup is to sugar; it is a “drop-in ready” alternative fuel. It can be mixed with or substituted for conventional diesel seamlessly, with no change in gas pumps, pipelines, or engines. In fact, it burns slightly cleaner, so engines last longer. It emits fewer particulates and, most importantly, its greenhouse gas footprint is up to 80% less. Its use is already widespread in California, where two of the state’s largest refineries no longer take petroleum crude.

This is the kind of thing that should have been developed thirty years ago, just after James Hansen of NOAA briefed congress on climate change in 1986. Now it’s late. We’ve already had more than 1C of climate warming, with more coming and probably ten feet of sea level rise built into the system. Stopping carbon emissions is no longer a suitable goal. We’ve already pushed the cart down the ramp. It’s rolling. We need to reverse climate change, to change that ramp so the cart rolls back to where it was. That will require actually sucking CO2 out of the air – negative emissions – which will certainly take a hundred years under the most optimistic scenarios. So get ready for more boobies, maybe even Limpkins and alligators.

Aside about Washington: Washington further delayed action a few years ago when the Department of Ecology required an Environmental Impact Statement from Phillips 66 to convert their refinery at Cherry Point to make renewable diesel. That is to say, Phillips needed to jump through major permitting hurdles because they were changing – that is, reducing — their greenhouse gas emissions. Phillips didn’t want to wait the several years required for this, so they promptly moved their operation to California. Governor Inslee tried to intervene and save the project, but it was too late. Now BP is picking up the baton in Washington.

Renewable diesel is already in widespread use in trucks, especially in California. The ferries in San Francisco Bay are powered exclusively by it. Because diesel is similar to jet fuel, and made during the same refining process, refineries also produce what is called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Aircraft are currently permitted to fly with up to a 50/50 blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. Boeing promises jets that can fly with 100% SAF by 2030. We’ll be approaching 1.5C of warming by then. Nazca Booby will almost certainly be off the rare bird review list, at least in California. Brown Boobies will be breeding on the Farallones and prospecting further north.

I watched as orca boats came and went from the barge, photographing the Nazca Booby. I was told it was on the starboard side of the roof of the little structure on the bow. The tug and barge continued up Admiralty Inlet until it was straight out from me, as close as it would pass. Slightly more than halfway across the channel, it remained blurred in heat mirage. I could see fuzzy white dots on the described rooftop, but I couldn’t tell you if they were Nazca Boobies or gulls or volleyballs. In birder’s lingo, this was going to be a ‘dip’, even though I knew exactly where the bird was and was looking at it.

My view of the tug, barge, and bird.

Mathematically, this would be at least the sixth time a Nazca Booby had passed this point, my point, my sea watch. And this time I was here, ready and waiting, and still I couldn’t see it. Were it not for the texts and the orca boats, I’d never know it was there. I kept my scope glued to it, hoping it would lift off in a distinctive flight and head directly toward me, where it would join the Caspian Terns and plunge dive right in front of me as I clicked my camera in ecstasy. But it didn’t. The tug and barge chugged north.

The bird was last seen at Partridge Point on Whidbey Island, still riding the barge. It was off the barge by Rosario Inlet. I’m guessing it jumped ship and headed toward Victoria or Smith Island.

The barge’s destination was the Lafarge Texada Quarrying Ltd. limestone mine north of Vancouver. Limestone is critical to making cement. The cement-making process is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Part of that is from the energy used in production, which requires a kiln heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius. But most of the emissions comes from the limestone itself. Forty percent of the weight of limestone is CO2, and this is burned off in the process. There are efforts to improve the cement-making process, to make it less dependent on limestone, to reduce its carbon emissions. That’s all coming in the future.

The limestone mine at Beale Cove, the barge’s destination.

I’m wondering about the ancient Nazca civilization in what is now Peru. It was dependent on a remarkable network of underground aqueducts that delivered mountain water to their arid home. There’s a theory that they over-harvested a certain tree, which led to erosion of riversides during heavy rains, destroying their water delivery system. I wonder if they had meetings about the problem, if they had new policies in effect, at least at the end, when it was too late.

It’s supposed to be 95F in the Seattle suburbs today. I’m not worried about missing this Nazca Booby. There will be more.

The Nazca Booby on the bow. I’m sure the scope views were better. Photo by Laura Brou.

Helping forests migrate: Planners race to plant trees adapted to the future climate

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.

The range of Arizona oak. For one town near Portland, Oregon, the list of potential future street trees includes this species, as well as California buckeye, California laurel, and silverleaf oak.

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.

Dead blue oaks in Fresno County, California. They experienced excessive mortality during the 2012-16 drought. These hills may revert to grassland. Researchers want to use the genes of the survivors as stock for the future in the north. For a full presentation of blue oak gene-assisted migration see this presentation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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.

Ponderosa pines are disappearing from lower elevations of the Sierra in California. This has been documented in Colorado as well.

Range expansion of trees northward has been documented, but the pace is anemic, insufficient to keep up with the changing climate. One study in the east found that ranges in adult trees expanded north less than 150 yards per year (Sittaro et al 2017). They concluded, “our results add to the body of evidence suggesting tree species are mostly limited in their capacity to track climate warming…”

Recent mega fires include many of the drought-killed conifers in the southern Sierra. Research suggests regeneration may be imperiled due to a warming climate.

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.

This photo from Aitken and Bemmels (2015) shows a series of Sitka spruce, all eight years old, planted together in British Columbia. The trees from the south, adapted for a warmer and drier environment, are out-competing the locals.

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.

Modern climate change is 10x faster than historic global warming mass extinction events

There have been several mass extinction events in the history of the earth, most of them caused by global warming due to “sudden” releases of carbon into the atmosphere, and it only took an increase of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius to cause the cataclysm. The current carbon emissions rate is 10 to 100x faster than during those events. And we’re already a quarter of the way there in terms of warming.

CLICK TO ENLARGEemissions rate

The current warming trends, RCP 8.5 and RCP 4.5, refer to estimates of carbon emissions under high and moderately low projections by the International Panel on Climate Change. The straight lines on the extinction events are approximate; there may have been episodic spurts and stops as different thresholds, positive feedback loops, and other natural events occurred. But these lines connect the dots we have.

The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Land animals with backbones didn’t really evolve until 300 million years ago (mya), so we’ll start there.

The most massive mass extinction event in the history of the earth was the End-Permian extinction event (also known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event or the Great Dying) 252 mya. It was caused by a massive release of carbon. The equatorial regions, both on land and in the ocean, were too hot for most life forms, including plants. The cause of the warming event is debated, but was most likely due to a series of volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps that lasted two million years. The extinction occurred during an initial 60,000 year period, which is “sudden” in geologic terms. Recovery of the ecosystem, basically a whole new evolutionary period to create new animals, took 2 to 10 million years.

The End-Triassic extinction event came next, 201 mya. It was also associated with volcanic activity and the massive release of carbon, this time from the mid-Atlantic ridge. It probably triggered a positive feedback loop, with melting permafrost releasing tons of methane. The extinction period, affecting plants and animals, lasted about 10,000 years and paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs dominated after that, until all but the avian dinosaurs (the ones that evolved into birds) were wiped out by another mass extinction event 66 mya. This may have been caused by a comet or asteroid striking the earth, or by extreme volcanic activity creating global warming similar to the other events here (8 degrees Celsius over 40,000 years). This one is not shown on the graph.

Finally, there was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) and associated extinction event 56 mya. Likely caused by a combination of carbon and methane releases, this global warming event is the most recent, offers the most evidence and information, and is most analogous to climate change today. The continents were in roughly similar positions as today. The warming, 5 degrees Celsius in about 5,000 years, wiped out much benthic marine life, pushed the tropics to Wyoming and alligators to the Arctic Circle, warmed oceans to 97 degrees, and made the equatorial regions too hot for many species. The PETM is well-studied, with hundreds of papers available on-line, plus quite a bit of media coverage.

The high temperatures lasted for about 20,000 years. Eventually, the Arctic Ocean became covered with algae. These algae slowly absorbed CO2. When it died, it sank, taking the carbon with it to the bottom of the sea, lowering the carbon in the atmosphere and cooling the earth back to normal. This process took 200,000 years.

Climate change during these past events, considered rapid in geologic time, would have scarcely been noticed by animals on the ground. Animals didn’t go extinct by dropping dead; they just had a lower reproductive rate such that their populations slowly declined until none were left. Also, they evolved. In fact, there was a pulse of evolution during the PETM, producing, among other things, the first primates.

The current warming is 10 times faster than during the PETM. It is noticeable within the lifespan of an individual animal. Adaption thru evolution is not an option. Scientists mince no words:

“We conclude that, given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. We suggest that such a ‘no-analogue’ state represents a fundamental challenge in constraining future climate projections. Also, future ecosystem disruptions are likely to exceed the relatively limited extinctions observed at the PETM.”  – Zeebe (2016)

The PETM raised average earth surface temperatures 5 C. We’re at 1.1 C now, with probably up to 2 C already built into the system, meaning we’ll reach that even if we stop all carbon emissions tomorrow. We’re likely to reach 2 C even if we dramatically reduce emissions and successfully implement Direct Air Capture of ambient CO2 in the atmosphere. Assuming business as usual, we may reach PETM levels in 140 years.

Note: See hyperlinks for sources.