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What Will Global Warming Mean to Missouri?

Oct 15, 2007

I overhead someone recently saying that they’re tired of hearing about climate change—they don’t know who to trust on the subject and wish they could just know the facts. One of the most riveting presentations I saw at a recent meeting of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies was by Dr. Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Global Change at the U.S. Geological Survey. She is also a member of the IPCC, the United Nationas group of scientists that won the Nobel Prize last Friday for their painstaking research and analysis of climate change over almost two decades, along with Al Gore, who won for his efforts to raise awareness of the subject.

In her presentation, Dr. Burkett showed a chart of the impact of increases of greenhouse gases on the earth’s temperatures. She pointed out data that suggested even if people around the planet could significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we’re adding each day, we’ll still have to deal with some real global warming beyond the normal limits of the past several hundred thousand year cycles. In searching for some Web references of Dr. Burkett, I came on a report she gave to the U.S. House of Representatives on impact of climate on coastal flooding (she formerly worked in Louisiana). The research is complex and detailed, but the real question is what we will do with the information we learn from all these reports.

One of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s key roles is to help people conserve plants, animals and their habitats. Nature is always changing, and people have always depended on their ability to adapt to those changes. Our challenge will be to help Missourians see what’s ahead here using the best of science that experts offer. Will we have wetter or drier weather? Will our current mix of forest life look more like something from the deep south? Armadillos have been moving north for several years. Do that and other wildlife trends mean anything? Should we consider planting a different mix of trees and shrubs if we want them to thrive? What will happen to fish that depend on cooler waters?

My favorite place where I live is along a creek where an ancient coral reef from about 360 million years ago now rests. I stand on top of that coral, now gray fossil swirls in rock, and marvel that warm shallow seas once covered that spot. I like the reminder that the life I see around me will change, with or without me.

But unlike that coral, we have choices to make, actions to take. Good science can help us get there, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that matters.

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