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C of I researchers study wide-reaching effects of climate change

“Greegor Peak is probably witnessing climate change,” jokes Dr. David Greegor, speaking of the Antarctic mountain that is named after him.

Greegor, a visiting Biology professor at The College of Idaho, had the peak named after him in the early 1970s while working on an Antarctic research team. As a research associate and curator of herpetology at the College’s Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History, Greegor, who also has a background in ecology and watershed planning, currently is studying how climate change impacts lizard populations.

According to Dr. Greegor, studies around the world show that native lizard populations are quickly becoming extinct across various regions. In the spring, lizards need to fatten up on insects in order to mate. But due to rising temperatures, they cannot remain out of their burrows long enough to find sufficient food. Without those energy reserves, they don’t reproduce. Drier climates and the replacement of sagebrush by the invasive cheat grass also are contributing to declining local populations.

C of I development director and former Peregrine Fund employee Jack Cafferty ’97 also has seen the effects of climate change while researching in Greenland with Dr. Kurt Burnham ’97, a fellow C of I alumnus and an Oxford graduate in ornithology.

“In 2006, we first started seeing mosquitoes at the research site,” Cafferty said. “You never used to, but now mosquitoes are there for a significant time.” Average daily temperatures in the region also have risen since the 1990s.

Burnham invited Cafferty to research in Greenland in the late 1990s, when Burnham was the Peregrine Fund’s Arctic Projects Director. In 2006, Burnham founded the High Arctic Institute, a not-for-profit focused on conservation, research and education. Through his work with the institute, Burnham also has witnessed a steady rise in temperature.

“[In the 1990s] we didn’t start our research in northern Greenland until the middle of July, since the seas were frozen,” Burnham said. “Now, we go at the end of June or early July, and there is almost no sea-ice.”

In what Cafferty calls “very scenic, but very unforgiving land,” the only access is by boat. The researchers climb up cliffs and rappel down to the nests of the birds they are studying.

In Burnham’s current work, the High Arctic Institute is working with 25 bird species, surveying 750 kilometers of coastline each year. Researchers take blood samples to check pollutant levels, track breeding chronology and run other tests to establish baseline data that will help track how climate change effects arctic bird populations.

Because of the temperature changes, many species are moving further north. With the temperature warmer for longer, there is a longer window of time for birds to breed. But there are downsides, too.

“There used to always be snow,” Burnham said. “Two years ago, it changed to rain. If you can imagine a down pillow, it doesn’t do well with lots of rain. This matters because chicks are covered in down to keep them warm. But the down absorbs water, and the chicks die.”

Changes in the precipitation patterns could have an economic impact locally, too. Here in Idaho, Greegor is concerned that more rain and less snow will negatively affect popular ski resorts, as it has in other areas.

“It’s an example of how unhealthy ecosystems directly affect economic systems,” Greegor said. “But you will never hear a weatherman talk about climate change. When you get weather reports, it’s just about what’s happening currently, regardless whether it is a historic event or not, with no attempt to make that connection between climate and weather. Weathermen have a wonderful opportunity to educate the public, but to make that connection is too politically dangerous, particularly in Idaho.”

Adds Burnham: “I don’t like the term global warming, because while there are areas rising in temperature, other areas temperatures are cooling. But it’s unprecedented. You have never seen the rate of change like it is now.”

So what does climate change mean for the average person? What is going to happen in the future, and why should we care? No one has a crystal ball, but if current trends continue, they could lead to major lifestyle and infrastructure changes for people living in lowland coastal areas as well as nation- and world-wide issues in food production, resource management and energy conservation. That’s uncomfortable for many people to think about, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

“In my seven seasons in Greenland, I witnessed climate change—it’s alive and well,” Cafferty said. “I’m not the technical scientist, and I haven’t published papers on it, but I can’t negate it. It’s happening.”

Adds Greegor: “We’re all witnessing climate change, but most of us are just not connecting the dots. And as it’s shaping up, when we do, it will be too late to do anything about it.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.