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Of Toads and Men—Scaremongering, Warts and All

A significant and abrupt climate change has obliterated several species of animals. These helpless creatures were utterly incapable of dealing with the ravages of this harsh new environment, having evolved to live happily in a completely different climate. Their destruction was rapid, capricious, and deadly. They will never inhabit our planet again, and we are all diminished by their loss.

We are talking here, of course, about dinosaurs, banished from Earth by an abrupt cooling. Was it a meteorite hitting the earth or some other factor? No one can say. Tragic? Perhaps. But hardly unique. Over the course of Earth’s history, more than 99 percent of all species have disappeared completely. They no longer exist. That’s 99 percent—gone forever!

Of course, the big dinosaur decline was good for some groups, namely mammals, who are little more than tasty morsels for T. Rex and company. Now, homo sapiens (one example of the type of mammal that thrives in a Tyrannosaurus-free environment) are chastising each other for causing the decline of some toad in Costa Rica. Of course, climate change is once again to blame. In an explanation more convoluted than our Balkan strategy, legions of our greener friends are conflating global warming with dead frogs, mistiness, flies, and chytrid fungus outbreaks.

This presents a wonderful opportunity for Big Government to link several programs that have been utter failures. The infamous Endangered Species Act—under the auspices of which the EPA runs rampant over individual liberties and property rights in an attempt to save creatures such as the California kangaroo rat—has not demonstrably, in its 25 years of existence, saved a single species from extinction. Simultaneously, the government has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into general circulation models (GCMs) of past, present, and future climate. Despite their inability to accurately reproduce either the past or even the current climate, these model’s predictions for future climate are widely regarded as dogma, an essential ingredient in the recipe for cooking up a greenhouse warming bio-scare.

Here’s the recipe, step by step:

1)  Get government bucks to poke around enough fly-infested haunts until you find some species that has either a) declined in numbers, or b) moved somewhere with fewer flies.

2)  Find a climate modeler. (An easy step. One time-tested approach is to stick your head out a window in Boulder, Colo., home of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and yell, “Hey, climate modeler!”)

3)  Ask your new modeler friend to come up with some hypothesis to explain how the near-extinction is related to global warming.

4)  After running 20 different versions of the GCM with 30 different parameterizations, find one that produces the precise combination of factors to explain why your favorite species is disappearing.

5)  Send two papers to Nature magazine (one on the species decline, the other on how the GCM predicted that identical set of events to happen), making certain that they reference each other profusely.

6)  Publish the findings on Earth Day for maximum press ogling.

Now to the news. In a beautiful harmonic convergence of climate change and endangered species, several species of birds, frogs, and toads are disappearing from the highland, cloud-enshrouded forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, according to an article in Nature magazine by researchers J. Alan Pounds, Michael Fogden, and John Campbell, all from Costa Rica’s Golden Toad Laboratory for Conservation. The species declines are coincident with changes in the patterns of dry-season mist frequency, which has been declining since the mid-1970s.

Sounds like catastrophic climate change is to blame, right? These declines in mistiness are exactly what should be expected from human-induced global warming (big shock!). As proof, we have the “lifting-cloud-base hypothesis,” which was first proposed by the three authors in a workshop in 1997 and was verified in Nature three pages earlier by Stanford’s Christopher Still and Steve Schneider (and coauthor Prudence Foster). Here, they compare global climate model simulations for a doubled CO2 atmosphere with current conditions and note shifts in the height of cloudiness in the dry season that correspond exactly to the decline in toadies.

Isn’t this self-referencing system wonderful? Each paper confirms its accuracy by referring to the other a la “This sentence is a self-referencing sentence.”

There are so many fish in this barrel that its almost a shame to waste ammunition! First, we keep hearing about how the planet is going to become moister from global warming and the “enhanced hydrological cycle.” In general, based on simple physics, a moister atmosphere will produce more clouds that form at lower elevations and a wetter forest—making for an extremely amphibian-friendly planet.

Second, if we were interested in the climate in some unique montane environment in Central America, the last place we’d look for answers is a GCM. Remember, GCMs don’t even have realistic clouds. Their spatial scale is so large that they can’t replicate huge cyclonic storm systems. The only way to use a GCM for this kind of problem is to downscale to subgrid processes (“downscaling” is climatology lingo for “added error”—in other words, add some fudge factor to the recipe!).

Third, just for kicks, we present the 95-year precipitation record from the Costa Rica grid cell, which includes mostly land stations from this country (Figure 1). There is no long-term change, nor is any change evident since the mid-1970s, when the authors detected an abrupt oceanic temperature change.

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Figure 1.  Historical precipitation amounts for Costa Rica from Hulme’s global precipitation dataset.

Fourth, even if you believe it is possible to detect global warming on one specific mountaintop, the little golden toadies were not even directly killed by climate—as Pounds himself admits:

“As the habitat dried and the frogs gathered near waterfalls, their probability of being attacked by parasitic flies increased sharply: Forty dead or dying frogs were observed (in 1983). Because climate affects host–parasite relationships and amphibians in various ways, it may have set the stage for similar mortality events, including those ascribed to chytrid fungus outbreaks.”

In the near future, we can expect to hear more and more about species declines and migrations linked to global warming. Since we have yet to prevent the eradication of a single species, and since species have been dropping like toads for millennia, we hardly see the logic. But we can predict with certainty that the implementation of draconian taxation programs such as the Kyoto Protocol will have absolutely zero impact on golden toads in Costa Rica.

As we ponder the toad’s plight, we reflect on one species that has migrated significantly over the past half-century. Humans, specifically Canadians and Americans, who have been migrating in droves—toward the South.

References:

Pounds, J.A., et al., Biological response to climate change on a tropical mountain. Nature, 398, 611–615.

Still, C.J., et al., Simulating the effects of climate change on tropical montane cloud forests. Nature, 398, 608–610.