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EXCLUSIVE: Review of Dr. Camille Parmesan's Research: Global Warming Effects on Biological Systems

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posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 10:37 AM
Dr. Camille Parmesan, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology at University of Texas at Austin, has worked extensively in researching the effects of global warming and weather changes on biological systems. Her works extend from studying the population distribution ranges of butterflies as associated to changing weather patterns, to being a contributor on the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr. Parmesan’s observations and conclusions are informative, intriguing and alarming. This article serves as a summary to a few of her works in preface to an upcoming ATSNN interview with Dr. Parmesan.

Dr. Parmesan’s body of works reveals four important points in the global warming trend we currently live within, and contribute to:

* As anyone who attempts to stay knowledgeable of the body of research concerning global warming will already know, there is a gradually increasing trend in the mean temperature for most of the globe.
* The changing weather patterns of the world are producing detectable changes in biological societies from insects, to birds, to humans, and in some instances, in entire eco-systems.
* Though the increasing mean temperature trend is of concern, along with the causal increase of carbon dioxide, and will adversely affect the globe as a whole, “extreme” weather events, those falling outside the normal ranges for a given parameter (i.e. temperature, precipitation, storms, floods, landslides, etc.) are having instantaneous, severe, and sometimes permanent effects on biological systems.
* The occurrence of extreme weather events is increasing.

Temperature Trends

As is common knowledge for anyone attempting to stay knowledgeable of the research concerning global warming trends, the global mean surface temperature has exhibited a significant increasing trend since the onset of the industrial age. Figure 1 illustrates the temperature trends over the past 140 years, as well as over the past 1000 years. (1)

That this increasing trend in surface temperature is due to substantial increases in levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere due to emissions inherent to the industrialization of the modern world has been born out by a preponderance of research work and evidence. And though the industrialized processes that are creating the perilous trend we must now acknowledge and attempt to remedy are not the subject of this review, to write an article on any research connected with global warming and not review this fundamental point would be remiss. Figure 2 reflects the increases in GHGs over the past 1000 years. (2)

In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting constitutes the culmination of 3 years of meetings, writings, multiple review periods (by experts as well as governments) and multiple revisions. The IPCC consisted of two working groups. Working Group I focused on the observed changes in the global climate, the causes for these changes, and forecast for the future based on historical data and global warming models. This group concluded that the mean global surface temperature had increased by 0.6 C over the past 100 years and based on projected models would warm an additional 1.4 to 5.8 C by 2100 with an accompanying average global sea level change of 0.09 to 0.88 m (0.3 to 2.9 ft).

Effects of Global Weather Changes on Biological Systems

Working Group II of the IPCC focused on the analysis of impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of the earth’s biological systems to the changing weather patterns associated with global warming. Dr. Parmesan participated in the work of this group. The report issued by this group points out the examples of changes in biological systems to date:

Examples of observed changes include shrinkage of glaciers, thawing of permafrost, later freezing and earlier break-up of ice on rivers and lakes, lengthening of mid- to high-latitude growing seasons, poleward and altitudinal shifts of plant and animal ranges, declines of some plant and animal populations, and earlier flowering of trees, emergence of insects, and egg-laying in birds. Associations between changes in regional temperatures and observed changes in physical and biological systems have been documented in many aquatic, terrestrial, and marine environments. (3)

As pointed out in the group’s report, the observed changes to biological or physical systems have been in the direction that logic would assume if the known climate changes are known. The juxtaposition of these two trends bares out a situation that odds would tend to eliminate as sheer chance. Dr. Parmesan has extensively studied the geographic distribution range of various species of butterflies and has found evidence within the change of boundaries of their geographic distribution that global warming is affecting where they live. 57 species of butterflies were studied in various countries and it was found that 67% of these species have had their northern boundaries extend northward. In other words, for the range of areas in which they inhabit, the geographic location of their most northerly locations have extended toward the north. For almost all these species, when the northern boundary shifted north, the southern boundary either remained stable, or also moved toward the north (i.e. retracted). For these, their range sizes actually increased as they shifted northward. The rest had their entire geographic distribution shift toward the north with no change in overall range size. Several of these species have extended their northern boundaries even though this required habitation of heavily cultivated landscapes less conducive to the species. This seems to preclude that land usage is the reason for the shift in boundaries, since an analysis of development of land by humans would tend to shift the boundaries southward if it were the driving factor. (4)

What the data does point toward as the driving factor is a shift in isotherms. An isotherm is a series of points of similar temperatures which creates a temperature band around the globe. As global warming increases, the isotherms are shifting to the north. Europe, which has warmed by 0.8 C in the past century, had its isotherms shift to the north by 120 km. In North America, the isotherms shifted to the north by 105 km. In both these cases, the species studied in the region shifted in their northern boundaries to the north by a similar distance. This agreement between isotherm shifts and northern boundary shifts is consistent across continents and species in the northern hemisphere. (5)

Similar shifts have been detected in the historical record of the Pleistocene glaciation period. The record shows that species shifted their distribution ranges with the changing climate. However, in the modern, industrialized world the landscape now presents barriers, due to human activity, that can prevent similar dynamics from occurring. Fragmentation of populations is increasing, creating smaller and more isolated communities. This can lead to reduced genetic variation which can then result in less ability to adapt to changes. Also, the distance between fragments of a population is increasing, working against the species’ ability to intercommunicate between communities. If a single community is hit with a catastrophic disturbance, it is less likely to be regenerated by the interaction with a healthier, non-affected community. (6)

The irreversibility of some of the adverse effects to natural systems, whether they be physical or biological, cannot be denied.

Natural systems at risk include glaciers, coral reefs and atolls, mangroves, boreal and tropical forests, polar and alpine ecosystems, prairie wetlands, and remnant native grasslands. While some species may increase in abundance or range, climate change will increase existing risks of extinction of some more vulnerable species and loss of biodiversity. It is well-established that the geographical extent of the damage or loss, and the number of systems affected, will increase with the magnitude and rate of climate change. (7)

Northerly movement of domains is not the only behavioral change observed in animals. Map turtles are a good example of how the changing weather patterns can effect the sex distribution in a species. As is the case in many reptiles, an individual map turtle’s sex “is determined by the maximum temperature experienced during a critical phase of embryonic development.” If the maximum temperature during this period is below 28 C, only males will be produced. If the maximum temperature exceeds this level, only females will be produced. So for a given nest, a single-sex is produced according to the maximum incubation temperature experienced. Equilibrium of the sexes is achieved through population mixing across different nests. However, due to fragmentation of the overall distribution range due to development by humans, the map turtle communities are tending to be smaller, and more isolated. This could lead to less sex dispersal across nesting communities. In addition to effects on embryonic development, breeding habits of certain animals are affected by the weather. In the Galapagos mockingbird, the birds become more polygamous during wet years. And for the African elephant, for which breeding is year-round, the hierarchy of breeding can be affected by variations in the duration of the rainy season which can lead to genetic make-up changes in the entire population.(8)

In British bird species, 31% since 1971, and 53% since 1939 have shown long-term shifts toward earlier onset of breeding season. Five species of British amphibians, out of a group of 6 species observed, are breeding earlier than they were in 1978. These shifts are significant. For the bird species observed, the shift has been approximately 9 days earlier while the amphibian shift has been up to 7 weeks earlier. (9)

Human systems are vulnerable to changing weather patterns as well.

Human systems that are sensitive to climate change include mainly water resources; agriculture (especially food security) and forestry; coastal zones and marine systems (fisheries); human settlements, energy, and industry; insurance and other financial services; and human health. (10)

Modeled projections of adverse impacts to humans include:

· A general reduction in potential crop yields in tropical and sub-tropical regions; as well as in mid-latitudes.
· Decreased water availability in already water-scarce regions including the sub-tropics.
· Increased numbers of affected people from vector-borne (malaria, etc.) and water-borne (cholera, etc.) diseases as well as increases in heat stress mortality.
· Increased flooding for developed communities (both from increased precipitation and increased sea levels).
· Increased energy demands for summer cooling. (11)

Extreme Events

But as important and concerning as the general trends are, the extreme weather events observed over recent years that have resulted in excessive loss of life and astronomical financial losses have led to concerns and analysis of extreme event impacts. That the above increasing trends in average temperatures is associated more with an increase in the minimum daily temperature, rather than maximum temperature, is even more concerning. In addition to temperature increases, precipitation has also increased over the same period of time analyzed. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests extreme events (i.e. weather events that fall outside the ranges of what is considered normal weather ranges) are not only increasing in frequency, but in impact to biological systems. (12)

Extreme Temperature Events

Studies conducted within the United States show different temperature trends for different regions of the country, but the overall trend has shown a mean temperature increase for the country as a whole (with the southeastern portion of the U.S. actually showing a cooling trend). At the same time, the number of days that temperature extremes are exceeded (either as a temperature event falling below the range’s minimum or falling above the range’s maximum) have decreased. Temperature trends have been detected in other parts of the world as well. In Australia and New Zealand, as in the U.S. the number of days the minimum temperature extreme is exceeded is decreasing indicating an increase in the minimum temperatures. In addition, in New Zealand, the number of days the maximum temperature extreme is exceeded is increasing, causing a shift upwards in the mean daily temperature. In Europe, a decrease in frost days since the 1930s has indicated an increase in the minimum winter temperatures. For the U.S., Russia and China, the maximum temperature extreme has either held steady or actually decreased in the case of China. However, over the same period of time the minimum temperature extreme has increased, thereby shifting the mean temperature upwards. But more importantly, for every country examined, the number of frost days has decreased and the minimum temperature extreme increased. (13)

Extreme Precipitation Events

An increase in heavy precipitation events has been detected in the U.S. and other countries. Furthermore, countries showing a decreasing or increasing monthly or seasonal precipitation level also see a significant portion of that change attributed to heavy or extreme precipitation events suggesting that the general trends in precipitation in these countries are being dominated by these extreme precipitation events. Figure 3, indicates the connection between the total precipitation trends and the extreme precipitation events in various countries. (14)

Areas around the globe affected either by drought or excessive wetness are increasing. For instance, the United States is experiencing an increase in excessive wetness since the 1970’s, while China is experiencing an increase in areas affected by drought. (15)

Impact to Biological Systems by Extreme Events

The vulnerability of human societies and natural systems to climate extremes is demonstrated by the damage, hardship, and death caused by events such as droughts, floods, heat waves, avalanches, and windstorms. While there are uncertanties attached to estimates of such changes, some extreme events are projected to increase in frequency and/or severity during the 21st century due to changes in the mean and/or variability of climate, so it can be expected that the severity of their impacts will also increase in concert with global warming. (16)

Recent documentation of systematic change across a broad range of species spread over many continents now provides convincing evidence that 20th century climate trends have impacted natural systems. (17)

Though many of the observed changes in biological systems were predicted by global warming models over a decade ago, and the affect of a gradual increase in global mean temperatures has been established and observed, research shows clear evidence of the strong adverse affects of extreme events on biological systems. The first recorded example of this effect was in the late 1800s. A severe winter storm over Lake Michigan was observed, by Bumpus, to kill off both the largest and smallest swallows creating a strong natural selection based on body size. In the 1950s New Mexico suffered an extended drought that caused the pinon/juniper forest to shift its boundaries by 2 km, and remains this way to this date. El Nino events have caused such striking occurences as the bleaching of massive coral reefs in the 1982-1983 time period. (18)

Extreme events create changes in oceanic circulation which in turn plays a major role in changes to biological systems. 40% of the 50 amphibian species at the Monteverde preserve in Costa Rica have become extinct since 1983. Analysis of four frog species at the preserve showed that the population declined in dramatic steps associated with specific El Nino events. The breeding changes observed in British birds and amphibians, as discussed previously, are believed to have been effected via events associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). (19)

In Dr. Parmesan’s work there is a repeated call for better integration of data between ecologists and climatologists for the hope of more accurately modeling the future events, both as general trends and toward predicting extreme events. Modeling does and will play a critical role in predicting the dynamic changes to the globe whether we change our ways or not. Unfortunately, as the Working Group II points out, both for natural systems as well as humankind, the weakest, the poorest, the most vulnerable are always the ones that have the least ability, or resources, for adapting to adverse weather changes. Though correcting, or reversing, the global warming trend is paramount to the long-term survival of our globe, it is for these creatures and these systems that live in peril that we must work collaboratively, both in gaining knowledge, and improving adaptability to ensure they weather the coming storm.


1. Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, February, 2001.
2. Ibid.
3. Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, February, 2001.
4. “Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming”, Nature Magazine; Parmesan, Ryrholm, Stefanescu, Hill, Thomas, Descimon, Huntley, Kaila, Kullberg, Tammaru, Tennent, Thomas and Warren; June 10, 1999.
5. Ibid.
6. “Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate on Terrestrial Biota”, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society; Parmesan, Root and Willig
7. Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group II…
8. “Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate on Terrestrial Biota”
9. “Climate Extremes: Observations, Modeling, and Impacts”, Science Magazine; Easterling, Meehl, Parmesan, Changnon, Karl and Mearns; September 22, 2000.
10. Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group II…
11. Ibid.
12. “Climate Extremes: Observations…”
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Summary for Policymakers: A Report of Working Group II…
17. “Climate Extremes: Observations…”
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.

Dr. Camille Parmesan's Website (University of Texas)

UPDATE: Dr. Parmesan's most recent paper "A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems", Nature; Parmesan and Yohe, January 2, 2003, constitutes a major advance over the analysis methodology used during the IPCC work. In this paper, Dr. Parmesan brings two statistical analysis methods, from two diverse disciplines, together in a global synthetic analysis of 1600 species. It was concluded that almost half of all species analyzed have shown a response to the past 100 years of global warming. This paper became a "most highly cited" paper by ISI Web of Science in May of this year. In order to achieve this distinction the paper must be cited among the top one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) in a current bimonthly period. Papers selected for this distinction, tend to signal important new trends in research and "serve as leading indicators of scientific advance."

You may read Dr. Parmesan's latest paper here:

and review the selection criteria for "most highly cited" papers here:

[edit on 9-21-2004 by Valhall]

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 10:48 AM
great article Val, I look forward to that exclusive interview, it should be interesting to hear Dr. Parmesan answers in regards to some of our questions.

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 10:48 AM
great article Val, I look forward to that exclusive interview, it should be interesting to hear Dr. Parmesan answers in regards to some of our questions.

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 11:45 AM
If Dr. Parmesan's work and conclusions are valid -- and I see no reason to doubt them -- then this is a clarion call to do the one thing we can to cut back on the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

For example, anthropogenic (man-made) emissions of carbon dioxide have risen on what is practically an asymptotic curve starting in 1850 (coinciding with the industrial revolution in the United States and Great Britain); with the "elbow" of the curve sometimes around 1950 (coinciding with the beginning of widespread industrialization of the rest of the world).

And, of course, the one thing that typifies industrialization is the burning of hydrocarbons: coal, coke, oil, and gasoline, and natural gas.

If global warming is tied to greenhouse gas emissions, and greenhouse gas emissions are tied to burning hydrocarbons, it doesn't require a brain surgeon to realize that the only thing we can do right now to either reverse or ameliorate global warming is to stop burning hydrocarbons.

The good news is that, within several decades, our hydrocarbon burning will shrink drastically as we run out of hydrocarbon sources like oil.

The bad news is that if we wait for hydrocarbons to run out without any replacement, most of the people on the Earth will die from hunger or exposure.

Trying to replace burning hydrocarbon for generation of electricity and heat with solar or wind-turbine gear is not going to work. Even if we fully exploited these technologies, the best we can do right now is to eliminate the need for about five or ten percent of what we produce.

Trying to force people to use less energy is just as difficult. There does not seem to be any way we can appeal to the common sense of most Americans, and, absent cutting off electricity for 12 hours a day, I do not see any way to impose savings on the people of the world.

Developing other methodologies of energy-generation that are technically possible but challenging from an engineering viewpoint sounds like a plan, but, given the costs to do so, is simply not feasible in the short term. These include methodologies like tidal-bore hydroelectricity, microwaves beamed Earthward from huge photovoltaic arrays in geosynchronous orbit, and stirling-cycle engines operating off temperature deltas of different depths of the oceans.

Someday, these technologies could provide a good percentage of our energy needs, but, given the state of the art and engineering expertise, I do not see them being developed and exploited for at least 30-50 years.

Finally, looking to non-existent fantasy energy systems is a waste of time, because we simply cannot wish a system into existence. If there is anything to cold fusion, zero-point energy, etc., it is so far away from even deriving a theoretical model as to be irrelevant for any planning purposes.

The only energy system that can cut back on the release of greenhouse gases and stop the global warming and all its horrid side effects that will work now is nuclear fission.

Blathering about whether or not we should find the most cost-effective (from both a safety and financial point of view) and using it right now as opposed to waiting for the "perfect" replacement will be signing the death warrants of our grandchildren.

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 12:37 PM
I live and attend school in Austin, Texas and haven't heard anything about this. Shows how much I pay attention lol.

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 06:24 PM
I have attached an update at the bottom of this article concerning Dr. Parmesan's latest paper.

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 08:28 PM
if thats how bad the affects are what does this contribute to a humans health as we are no diffrent from animals , as we breath and live all over the world, this sounds strange

posted on Sep, 21 2004 @ 11:37 PM
Well, to anyone interested in this issue, you should see the Weather Channel's documentary "Alaska Meltdown." It is going to be aired this Sunday at 8:30 EST and 11:30 EST on the Weather Channel. The documentary is going to be about the current effects of global warming in Alaska.

posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 06:48 AM
The world climate is very hard to predict, but the global temperatures are oscillating. The variation of temperatures is normal (the cycle is 1000 to 1500 years long). Based on a study of tree rings in california and other sources there was a period from 1500-1900 was relatively cool, it has even been called "the little ice age". The glaciers expanded, lowering the water levels and making large portions of land inhabitable (the vikings had to abandon Greenland for that, and that's why the Greenland isn't so green anymore).
That period has ended and the next cycle has begun, a period like before 1500 is next (warmer). The beginning correlates with CO2 emissions, but the link between these two hasn't been proven. It would be normal (along the pattern) that the temperatures would be climbing until years 2500-2800. Glaciers would melt, the water levels would rise. Maybe even the amount of habitable land would increase in some places.
A drastic change in climate has happened about 2500bc.
In my opinion the mankind isn't powerful enough to stop or cause climate change by itself, real powers like the sun and the oceans have to support it. We can only, at best, accelerate or decelerate it.

[edit on 22/9/04 by tontsum]

posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 04:22 PM
Great article Valhal!
Im eagerly anticipating your interview and just can't wait to see how it turns out! I'm really liking the new direction of ATS and ATSNN right now and I really hope the admins,mods,ATSNN Editors and Reporters keep up the great work.

posted on Jan, 2 2005 @ 05:17 PM
I just found this article and it is very interesting! I wonder about the cause and effect of the greenhouse gasses. If it is the GHG that have caused all this wacky weather or if some of the natural disasters are having effect on the weather.

I know we were running down into the single digits at night and highs no more than 30 and as soon as the earthquake/Tsunamis hit, the temperatures climbed significantly. We have had temperatures, even abnormally warm for here, in the mid sixties during the day.

Maybe global warming and climate change is a combination of nature and mankind.

posted on Jan, 2 2005 @ 06:00 PM
I tell you what, our weather is changing, and is not funny.

Some people does not believe in global warming and our government call researchers and scientist reports no good enough.

But all you have to do is go outside and see for yourself.

Right now here in the south, this is the second year that winter has been pushed back by a month, today we enjoyed a temperature in the seventies, it felt more like spring than the beginning of winter.

My mother in PR told me that they have a record temperature in December of 51 in one of the towns in the highest point in the Island and that is for the first time.

When I was growing in PR, 69 was the lowest ever.

I know that the earth goes through changes but perhaps this time around we are influencing this changes faster with our human help.

Thanks Vall for bringing this topic to ATS.

posted on Jan, 3 2005 @ 02:09 PM
Just going to add another thanks to Valhall for this article here and arranging the interview...I'm looking forward to this.

I've been telling people that if next year is like this past year, we'll probably remember this year as the year the start of climate change became really obvious...if you want to scare yourself, check out the most recent book by James Lovelock; hopefully our guest will have further reading advice.

posted on Jan, 3 2005 @ 03:05 PM
I hope I didn't misunderstand sisonek. But I read your words as if you had not found the interview.

here it is.

if you didn't mean that, my apologies. I REALLY enjoyed learning of Dr. Parmesan's work and interviewing her. SHE CHANGED ME!

posted on Jan, 3 2005 @ 03:51 PM
Thanks for pointing the interview out to me, Valhall...I missed it entirely the first time that I've read the original interview, WOW! Definitely the highwater mark for ATS and ATSNN in the time I've been hanging out here.

I've done plenty of work using the Lotka-Volterra equations (for population dynamics) and their more sophisticated analogs and can definitely confirm the "tipping point" effect for animal populations...I don't know the first thing about climactic modeling but it seems very likely that those models exhibit similar behavior. I will try to figure out which of Lovelock's books (none of them look like the book I'm thinking of) is the one I'm thinking of. For the sake of discussion, Lovelock (the inventor of the 'gaia' hypothesis, ie, that the Earth's climate is a self-regulating system) argues, essentially, that:

a) life on earth likes it best when its temperate, neither too hot nor too cold
b) the 'ecosphere' sometimes tries to warm the planet up (ie, to end ice ages) or to cool it down if it gets too hot, but has a tendency to overshoot; this argument's pretty intricate:
i) the reason life on earth is possible is b/c the distance from the sun is 'just right'
ii) but, just the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere shows that life has a huge influence on the atmosphere and ultimately the geology of our planet -- w/out life, the oxygen would react and fall out of the atmosphere in a matter of days or weeks -- and, keeping with his gaia hypothesis, the net action of the worlds' lifeforms is to push the planet's climate in directions more favorable for life
iii) due to tipping point phenomena, though, the climate tends to overshoot; basically, after an ice age the trend is for the climate to get warmer, until eventually it gets too hot, which causes mass dieoffs and somehow or another (the mechanism escapes me) this leads to another ice age
iv) unfortunately, the overall trend has been mostly towards warmer -- the sun has gotten hotter over the past couple billion years, for one thing -- and so the ecosphere's cooling abilities are going to be increasingly strained anyways
and thus v) add on top of that the extra strain human activity's put on the ecosphere's climate regulation abilities and it's anyone's guess -- the next tipping point could be final

c) finally, he points out that a characteristic of a lot of systems with tipping points in them is that right before they approach the tipping point they oscillate wildly -- essentially, if you think of it as a control mechanism, a certain amount of 'excess energy' can safely be dissipated, but when there's 'too much' the system starts exploring for new equilibria.

It's c) that has me worried, and why Lovelock's book is frightening: basically, his "end-of-our-current-global-climactic-system" model says that if you start having wild oscillations in your climate, you're probably at the end of the line, so to speak...this year's freak winter weather looks to a nonexpert like a pretty big deviation from the past few years' winter, and this deviation seems to be a pretty global phenomena, too...


So, I guess I owe you a very belated thanks for arranging and conducting the interview; I wish I'd seen it in September instead of January, but that's my fault; and no apologies are needed, either: I'm just glad this got pointed out to me; it seems that discussion on this thread and the original news story have quieted down, but I might be seeing you in the fragile earth forum.

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