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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Local Climate Change

I went to high school in upstate New York. We lived in a house in the midst of what would be considered to be suburban sprawl. The developers cut the forest down and then built roads, infrastructure, and houses. Some small trees were planted here and there, but, for the most part, as we looked at the hill that our house was on we would see the rows of houses and the roads and not really even notice those little trees.

It was seven years between when I graduated from high school and when I went back for a visit. I was astounded that when looking at our hill this time, all I could see were trees. Big trees. The trees' canopy completely obscured all signs of houses and roads.

Orange County, California has an interesting history. In the 1800s, it was primarily scrub brush and grassland and was used for cattle ranching. In the first half of the 1900s, agriculture such as oranges (thus the county's name) became dominant which meant that huge tracts of land were covered with trees. In the second half of last century, the trees were leveled and replaced with suburban sprawl and Disneyland. Of course, some small trees were planted as part of the associated landscaping effort, but it was a superb example of a concrete jungle.

I used to go up to Orange County weekly in the 1980s for some work my company was doing at the time. I hadn't been back (except driving through) since then until we went to Disneyland this week. Once again I was very surprised at how big the trees got. Looking out of our 14th floor hotel room, it looked like a forest in every direction. Sure, there was an occasional big building (or group of buildings) sticking up out of the trees, but it looked remarkably lush and natural. Except, of course, for the minor detail that Orange County is very arid and would not naturally be a forest.

These local makeovers have a major impact on the local climate which will probably dwarf the effects from global climate change for a long time to come. Trees can make the temperature several degrees cooler in the afternoon (6-8°F) and perhaps a tad warmer in the middle of the night. Though I can't confirm it, my experience is that trees make it a bit more humid (which is quite nice in a dry place like San Diego). The air definitely smells different (Orange County was far less smoggy than last time I'd been there). Trees also reduce the wind at the ground level.

The most important thing I've noticed about local environments and climates, is that no matter what happens, the ecosystem always manages to adapt. That's true for volcanic eruptions like Mt St. Helens in 1980 ("[t]he single greatest surprise to scientists entering the blast zone shortly after the eruption was the realization that many organisms survived in, what initially appeared to be, a lifeless landscape"), the area around Chernobyl after the escape of radioactive material ("[s]cientists studying the site from the International Radioecology Laboratory just outside the zone have reported a startling return of many rare species to the area and a general increase in the diversity of many wild plants and animals"), concrete jungles like Orange County and Los Angeles where my brother-in-law now routinely encounters bears in his back yard, upstate New York suburbia where deer are everywhere you look and are a serious driving hazard, and my own backyard in the middle of San Diego where we have possums, skunks, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, and birds, birds, and more birds.

The one thing I've learned during my decades on this planet: life always comes back, no matter what. Climate change, whether local or global, won't stop it.


erp said...

Apparently, there are many more trees now than there were when the Pilgrims landed. Check one for the good guys.

Harry Eagar said...

I dunno about that. It was said that when the Europeans landed, a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi without touching the ground. Couldn't now.

Bret's observations were anticipated by the L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith around 1970, when he looked out the back window of his GI bungalow and realized that L.A. was a forest.

Well, heavily treed. Not really a functioning forest.

In the 18th c., the Connecticut River Valley was the breadbasket of America, feeding the slaves in the Caribbean and the South. I had the opportunity to fly over it at fairly low altitude (around 3,000 feet) back in 1985. It almost looked like forest primeval, but of course it wasn't.

It's not really true, either, that ecosystems come back. They sure don't in Hawaii, where the natural dieback and recovery of the fundamental tree of the rainforest, the 'ohia lehua, has been short-circuited by invasive species, of which bamboo may be the worst. Even ecological destruction has come from the takeover of Tahiti's rainforest by the Brazilian Miconia calvescens.

For a complex analysis of what heppened with chestnut blight in the southern Appalachians, see 'Where There Are Mountains' by Donald E. Davis; and for the extinction of the longleaf pine in the southern coastal plain, 'Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South ' by Jack Temple Kirby.

(I have fairly detailed reviews of both at Amazon)

Bret said...

harry eagar: "It's not really true, either, that ecosystems come back."

I agree that the same ecosystem may or may not come back. Some fairly diverse ecosystem will though. Islands are a bit of a special case, especially new ones like Hawaii, where the ecosystems can be temporarily (millions of years) overcome by a few invaders.

erp said...

Harry, My comment was meant to refute the CW that we've decimated the land. Things change for many reasons, most of them having nothing to do with us fragile humans. The recent ice age must have resulted a very different landscape than the one it replaced. Sea creature fossils found on mountain tops, etc.

Re: Breadbasket. The Midwestern prairies were much better suited as farm land than the narrow Connecticut valley, so that's where we went to grow our grain.

Harry Eagar said...

Well, we have decimated the land. Nature does a more extensive job but not so thorough. See any of E.C. Pielou's excellent books, but start with 'After the Ice Age.'

Some areas are more resilient than others. The North American prairies are very adaptable. The laterite soils in the low latitudes, not so much.

erp said...

I don't wish to be argumentative, but are you decrying the human factor in the decimation of the landscape or merely documenting it?

Harry Eagar said...

Depends which landscape you mean.

Unlike Ted Turner, I am not proposing to give Nebraska back to the buffalo.

On the other hand, Daniel Lykes' attempt to grow corn along the Amazon was a disaster any way you look at it.

One component of the decline of Venice as a power was that the Venetians cut down the oak forests of Illyria and did not replant. It took them 500 years, but at the end of that time, still before the Age of Industry, Venice needed to build more ships but had no more wood.

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Harry Eagar said...

A thought. You live in north Florida, do you not?

What do you think about Cedar River (or is it Creek?) oysters? Compatible with condos or not?

erp said...

Yes, I now live in central Florida, but I was born in Queens (a mostly working class borough of NYC) and have lived in upscale suburban Connecticut and a rural college town in Vermont.

I know nothing about oysters no matter where they hang out. My statement about not being querulous is sincere. I believe that we are caretakers of the landscape or Gaia, if you prefer, but given that, it's ours to use as we see fit.

One of the many things the left does that drives me crazy, is judge and condemn people in the past for not knowing or caring about the things we know now to be true or the myths we have created. I dare say Venetians wouldn't have chopped down all those trees if they could have foreseen the consequences. Many other such tragedies, the Sahara desert and Haiti come to mind.

That said, developers here are like kids in a candy store or alcoholics at a brewery. Hog wild with greed, and against all evidence to the contrary, they have convinced our neighbors that more development will mean lower taxes. Over the past 20 years, we have been active in trying to forestall the inevitable with some success, but now the flood gates have been opened never again to close and we're too tired to care anymore.

Harry Eagar said...

You might be interested, then, in a longish discussion about usufruct at

I disagree with both sides over there, and furthermore don't believe any of the commenters knows much about Jefferson, which was their launching point. But it's a pretty good discussion.

More sbout binding future generations than dissing past ones, but it's the same question.

erp said...

Harry, doesn't open. Is the spelling correct?

Oroborous said...

Just missing a dot, ergo:

The top post now is a somewhat amusing parody of AGW hubris, plus a picture of a REALLY HUGE catfish.

Hey Skipper said...

It was said that when the Europeans landed, a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi without touching the ground. Couldn't now.

True enough.

However, I was once given a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield by a historian at the Army War College.

One of the first things he said, when relating the march into enemy lines, was "none of the trees you see now were here then."