Tracking the Biological Signal: Dr. Camille Parmesan

In the early l990’s, Camille Parmesan began studying an obscure butterfly named Edith’s checkerspot. Suspecting that it was responding to higher temperatures in California by shifting its range northward, Parmesan applied to NASA for a grant to study the butterfly’s response to global warming.

"So I devised a project to look for response to global climate change by looking at the whole species range all the way from Mexico to Canada and asking the really simple question, ‘Are we seeing it shifting its range?’ And NASA said, ‘Sure, go for it.’ And gave me three years funding to do this.”

Since then Parmesan has become an internationally recognized authority on the biological response to climate change. Now for the wonderful science program Earth and Sky, she writes a post on the latest work in the field.

We are seeing impacts of current warming on every continent and in every ocean. We’re also seeing very similar responses in very different types of organisms – from butterflies in Finland to fish in the North Sea, from foxes in Canada to trees in Sweden, from birds in Antarctica to starfish in Monterey Bay, California.

Forty-percent of wild species are showing changes in their distributions – shifting their ranges north and south towards the poles and up mountains. An astonishing 62% are showing changes in their seasonal timing: spring is earlier and fall is later. Birds arriving for their spring migration, butterflies emerging from overwintering, trees leafing out after winter dormancy and the first blooms of flowers are all about two weeks earlier than they were 30 years ago across the northern hemisphere.

Although some writers–notably Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker–have brought up this aspect of climate change, in this commentator’s opinion it’s often overlooked. Perhaps that’s because we think  that butterflies can adapt to climate change, and glaciers can’t. But it’s my suspicion that we as animals ourselves find it easier to identify with living, breathing, fluttering creatures than bodies of ice, and might pay more attention if we looked more at the "signal" through the eyes of our fellow mortals…

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