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Volume 5, Number 3
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Global Warming
and the Bay

Critical Mass

Despite studies like those by Kimmel, David Miller, Tom Miller, Harding, and Orth, the Bay region has lagged behind other ecosystems in the U.S. and around the world in evaluating the current and future impacts of climate on its flora and fauna. "The Bay community is becoming interested in climate issues, but we are not yet at the tipping point where there is a significant amount of funding available," says Kimmel. "It's kind of a shame because this is one of the best studied estuaries, especially from a historical perspective."

"How do you get people to understand what it could be like in the future, and what if we are wrong?"

Elsewhere the impact of global warming on plants and animals has definitely reached a threshold that has caused the scientific community to sit up and take notice. Will changes like these — the northward drift of a butterfly or even the loss of eelgrass in the Chesapeake — be sufficient to rally broad public and political will?

Kimmel has his doubts. The political will in the Chesapeake Bay region may be close to maxed out, he suggests. "Unless we demonstrate that there is going to be a large-scale fisheries change, people might not care. Even then, they might not care," he says. "This is going to be the hardest sell of all, because it's a prediction. We've been making these predictions for fisheries, like blue crab, for some time. But climate is even a tougher sell because many people don't believe in global warming."

Part of the problem, he says, is that climate change does not have an immediate impact on people's lives. The only way that we get a taste of what it might be like is with events like the heavy rains in June 2006, he says. But even that was temporary. "How do you get people to understand what it could be like in the future, and what if we are wrong?"

Rallying people around the issue of climate change in the Chesapeake Bay may indeed prove difficult. The long-term effects of nutrient pollution in the region have taken a toll on public and political will and consumed the lion's share of resources directed at the watershed. People have only just started to consider the possibility that global warming may offset the positive impacts of the tremendous nutrient reduction effort in this region.

"Climate predictions may tell us that if we stay on this trajectory with greenhouse emissions, even if we spend $15 billion in nutrient reduction, climate change could just increase nutrient levels in the Bay and that money would be wasted," says Kimmel.

Does this mean that climate warming will doom restoration efforts to failure? While we can't know the answer with certainty, the outlook is likely not as bleak as all that. Managers have already begun to incorporate scenarios for climate warming into their next round of model predictions for 2030, which will amend the nutrient reduction strategy for the period after 2010 — the court-ordered deadline for getting the Bay off the federal list of impaired waters (see Model Forecasts for a Warming Watershed). Researchers have already begun to work more closely with city planners to incorporate predictions for sea level rise with community growth objectives (see Bad Storms on the Rise). While not a guarantee, proactive efforts to anticipate the impact of climate change on the region should help safeguard against unexpected surprises.

Anticipating changes in the estuary itself, shifts in the composition of plants and animals, and the who-eats-whom interactions of the food web, may mean revising our assumptions that a Bay in the warming world of the future will closely resemble the Bay of the past. Restoration of eelgrass in the southern Bay, for example, may prove difficult or impossible if the region gets warmer, promising little return on our financial investment. But this does not necessarily mean that ecological services provided by other species of underwater grasses, if healthy and abundant once again, would not perform most, if not all the necessary functions — providing sufficient food and habitat for waterfowl, fish, and shellfish, filtering and trapping sediment, absorbing excess nutrients, and inhibiting shoreline-eroding wave action.

Meanwhile, the alarming current trajectory for global warming might yet be temporary. While rising temperatures are a fact of the near-term future, because current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cannot be immediately reversed, future policy decisions on local, national, and global scales may buy us time — time for a further course correction for the Chesapeake watershed.

Kimmel flips the switch on the winch and the acoustic zooplankton counter and CTD instrument slowly make their way to the surface, wending up from a depth of 87 feet. He keeps an eye on the screen of his laptop to keep track of the depth so that the instruments do not break the surface too fast.

He looks at his laptop and then back out toward the water. The screen reads 1.5 meters (5 feet) and still the two large instruments, encased in their bulky metal frames, are nowhere to be seen. The waters of the Choptank River, murky and turbid, completely conceal them from view, even at that shallow depth.

Kimmel glances at Jamie Pierson, his post-doc who is a recent transplant from Seattle and the clearer waters of Puget Sound. Pierson is eyeing the water incredulously, astounded that he still can't see the instruments. "Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay," Kimmel says ironically. Once he has the high-tech package back aboard, he turns the boat around and starts heading for shore.

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