Environmental scientists gather at UMass to discuss climate change, invasive species

  • Gypsy moth caterpillars crawl on the leaves of a white oak tree June 8, 2017 in Belchertown.

  • Jenica Allen, a University of New Hampshire ecology professor, presents research on forecasting the invasion risk of terrestrial plants at the first ever regional invasive species and climate change symposium held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on July 27, 2017. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Jenica Allen, a University of New Hampshire ecology professor, presents research on forecasting the invasion risk of terrestrial plants at the first ever regional invasive species and climate change symposium held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on July 27, 2017. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 7/27/2017 11:25:22 PM

AMHERST — Anyone who watched gypsy moths strip all the leaves from their favorite shade tree this spring has seen firsthand the damage that invasive species can inflict on native flora and fauna. As climate change fast changes the world, the bad news is that in the years to come New England may become a hotspot for invasive plants and animals.

That was the pressing subject on the minds of around 100 experts from academia, conservation organizations and government agencies who gathered Thursday for the first day of the Northeast Climate Science Center’s first ever regional invasive species and climate change symposium held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

As temperatures change, disturbances like droughts become more frequent and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase, scientists and conservationists are increasingly attempting to understand and prepare for how that will affect invasive species.

“The take-home for the Northeast is that we’re going to be some of the losers when it comes to thinking about where the hotspots are in invasive plants,” Jenica Allen, a University of New Hampshire ecology professor, told the crowd gathered to see her presentation.

The research Allen presented was focused on forecasting the invasion risk of terrestrial plants, trying to predict the possible shifts in the geographical range where those plants can flourish as the climate changes. For invasive species like Japanese barberry, her findings suggest their population could expand, while there could be declines for other species like garlic mustard.

In her own presentation, UMass Amherst environmental conservation professor Bethany Bradley focused on several of the factors that could make plant and pest invasion more likely.

“These climate changes are stressing the local ecosystems to the benefit of invasive species,” Bradley said of disturbances like drought, which can provide an opening for non-native species to prosper.

Protected by cold

Plants like the rapidly growing kudzu vine, which smothers other plants, may spread out of the southern United States if temperatures rise enough so that northern winters don’t kill off the noxious weed. The destructive emerald ash borer, which kills its host trees by cutting off nutrient flow, could also spread farther afield if winters become milder, Bradley said.

Increased carbon dioxide in the environment might help native plant growth through “CO2 fertilization,” she said, but invasive plants will likely benefit even more.

Although they are not pleasant to hear, those findings — that invasive species might stand to benefit from climate change at the expense of native species — will likely help conservationists and government officials better prepare for future realities. That is the goal of gathering scientists and those on the ground, the event’s organizers say.

“We wanted to see how we could bring people together to learn from each other,” said Toni Lyn Morelli, one of the event’s organizers and a research ecologist with the Northeast Climate Science Center, which is hosted by UMass Amherst, supported by the Department of the Interior and managed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Among the state agencies represented at the event were the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Bureau of Forestry and the Department of Agricultural Resources, Morelli said.

How to communicate with, and perhaps change the minds of, climate change skeptics was the question that Ezra Markowitz, an assistant professor of environmental decision-making at UMass Amherst, raised in an early morning talk on Thursday.

“Change is hard,” Markowitz said of convincing people climate change is real and dangerous. “It’s a lot easier to be skeptical.”

Markowitz said an approach focused simply on putting as many facts as possible out into the world isn’t very successful. Despite scientific consensus on climate change, despite all the information available from places like the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, myths persist.

Instead, he said, scientists should provide people with personally relevant information — helping South Florida residents know what sea-level rise will look like so they can plan to build more resilient houses, for example.

Trusted in-group messengers can also be better conveyors of information, he said, allowing people the space to adopt the issue of climate change as their own. He mentioned the Tea Party-aligned Green Tea Coalition as an example of a group convincing conservatives of the efficacy of more environmentally friendly policies.

Solutions possible

Allowing natural resource managers and scientists time to talk about the field provides researchers a sense of what on-the-ground research needs are, said Valerie Pasquarella, a postdoctoral research associate at UMass Amherst and a fellow at the Northeast Climate Science Center.

Pasquarella, for example, uses satellite imagery to map the invasive gypsy moth’s defoliation of trees so that she can help stakeholders answer important questions when an invasion occurs, like, “why now?”

That collaboration is important, attendees said, because the emerging picture of the future is not all depressing.

“With some of these systems we have solutions,” UMass Amherst entomology professor Joe Elkinton said. “These major pest systems can become no problems if we do the right thing.”

Elkinton’s research focuses on invasive forest insects, and as an example of successful collaboration he cited the efforts of state conservation officials and academics to control the population of winter moths.

In 2005 and 2006, Elkinton led the university’s entomology department and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation in releasing hundreds of parasitic flies at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham. In the following years, those flies contributed to winter moth population declines, turning a widespread pest into just another bug that is no longer utterly destroying species like maple trees.

Protecting native species is an important part of maintaining biodiversity and protecting the environment, Morelli said. But the endeavor is also important because of the role those native species play in people’s lives.

“People love this place,” Morelli said of New England. “They love it in large part because of their environment.”

Environmental associations like maple syrup and trout fishing are what makes the region what it is, she said. If invasive species start overtaking those native ones, killing or forcing out the sugar maples or the butterflies in our backyards, the loss will be devastating, she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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