Keeping in tune with the rhythms of nature
Many of my business trips this year have caused me to think about the changing patterns of nature and our sensitivity to its messages. As time passes, we don’t need empirical data to decode the clues we can see with our eyes or feel on our skin. Rising temperatures and unpredictable seasons are becoming apparent to even the most casual observer.
As humans, confident in our position as the planet’s champion predators, we sometimes imagine ourselves separate from the quiet protests of the ecosystem in which we exist. It’s too hot? Simply turn on the air conditioning. The cupboard is bare? Go to the shop and load up your trolley. Taps run dry at home? Easy – buy water by the gallon in plastic bottles.
With our Homo Sapien wisdom and technological might, surely, we are above the mercy of external pressures and remain fully in charge of our destiny?
Except, the truth is far less simple, and far less reassuring. Our society may be hugely complex and sophisticated, powered by technologies our ancestors could never even dream of, but humanity remains one single, fragile component in a complex and interdependent ecosystem; as vulnerable to the overwhelming forces of nature as the humblest bug, tiniest plant or single celled organism at the bottom of – and holding up – the global food chain.
If through our actions – and inactions – we weaken or destroy one strand of nature’s delicate web, we risk triggering an uncontrollable cascade of changes that could, quite literally, engulf us, destroying our way of life and curtailing the refined civilization we have developed over the millennia.
This idea – that a small change in one part of an interconnected system can lead to much larger changes elsewhere in that system – is called the ‘butterfly effect’ (now part of the mathematical field of ‘Chaos Theory’).
It’s largely based on the work of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz.
He gave the metaphorical example of the size, duration or path of a tornado being influenced by minor changes like the distant flapping of a butterfly’s wings several weeks earlier.
It doesn’t take a mathematician or a meteorologist to see the small changes happening all around us a result of man-made climate change; small changes that are disrupting the lifecycle patterns of plant and animal species; the portents of potentially much bigger changes to come if we do not take positive action.
Yet, all is not lost. By acknowledging the impacts of our rapacious industrial/consumer culture, we begin the inevitable process of accepting responsibility. Further, we empower ourselves to begin counteracting the planetary vandalism which has constituted such a gross act of self-harm.
Phenology exposes human recklessness
Climate change. Two words which have been almost neutered by overuse. But what does it actually mean for our day to day lives?
In real terms, it means that in 2021 the Earth’s surface temperature was 0.84˚C hotter than the 20th Century average, and 1.04˚C hotter than in pre-industrial times. The nine years between 2013 and 2021 each rank among the ten warmest on record. Worse, without intervention the picture might become bleaker still. Human activity currently emits around 11 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, and even a rapid reduction by 2050 might not prevent temperature rises of 2.4 degrees or more this century.
At face value those numbers might not sound enormous, but Earth has taken notice, and its flora and fauna begun to react. The science behind this – phenology – involves studying plant and animal life in the context of cyclical natural phenomena.
One recent study showed that three-quarters of North American bumblebee species were awakening from hibernation an average of 35 days earlier than in years past – before the flowers that nourish them have bloomed.
Insects in general, those pillars of the food chain, have proven most susceptible to climactic shifts. In the tiny, unheralded realm of the insect, climate is everything. One study shows that by 2100 insect habitat loss will be two-thirds more expansive if temperatures rise by 2˚C, rather than 1.5 ˚C – a far greater sensitivity than that displayed by plants and vertebrates.
It’s not just insects who are suffering. On August 9, 2022, the port of Valencia in Spain recorded a seawater surface temperature of 29.72 degrees, more than a degree warmer than the previous record from 2015. The resulting reduction, i.e., increased acidity, in seawater pH hinders the formation of calcium-based skeletons and shells essential for sea life.
Still, these harbingers of nature’s changing rhythms are fairly inconsequential, are they not? Bees, fish . . . they’re not people, are they? Well, yes, except, we rely on bees to pollinate our crops. Studies suggest an 8% decline in crops in low-to-middle income countries if pollinator insects disappear.
As for those fish and crustaceans which can no longer properly grow or reproduce and are now prone to extermination by invasive species – billions of people worldwide rely on fish as their main source of protein. Yet the number of overfished stocks has tripled in the last 50 years, leaving one-third of fisheries “pushed beyond their biological limits.”
Remove one of the ecosystem’s foundations and the whole edifice begins to teeter. And that is why phenology is gaining traction in scientific and environmental communities alike.
Evidence bridges continents, spans species
On land, plants and animals typically rely on day length (photoperiod) and temperature to activate the next stage of their life cycle. Fish, meanwhile, detect seasonal rainfall in river discharges, using this to time their migrations. Other life forms, such as fir cones, need fires to stimulate seed release and germination.
Relationships can be even more intricate than they first appear: interdependent species might have different triggers so won’t necessarily ‘shift’ to the next stage of the cycle in tandem.
“Within food chains, plants may shift their development more quickly than animals that feed on them, leading to phenological mismatches,” notes the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Frontiers 2022: Noise, Blazes & Mismatches report. This leads to a predator/prey imbalance with inevitable consequences for reproduction, growth and survival.
If our actions as custodians of planet Earth interfere with epochs-old triggers, nature falls out of synch. Breeding seasons start too early, crops fail, species numbers enter freefall, and in a world with an ever-growing human population (which could hit 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100) hunger escalates.
The UNEP report notes widespread emergence of phenological mismatches across the globe, from the UK to the European Alps and into the southern hemisphere, among terrestrial and marine environments alike. Several examples leap out.
- Following a 2oC rise in sea temperatures, Eastern North Pacific blue whales now congregate at their California feeding grounds 42 days sooner than a decade ago.
- In the Arctic, caribou births have fallen 75% because snowmelt allows vegetation to decline before calving season.
- In North America, a three-decade study into the Monarch butterfly showed it had delayed its Canada to Mexico winter migration by six days due to milder temperatures.
- Red knot shorebirds of northern Siberia are shrinking in size with each passing generation because earlier snowmelt (arriving 0.5 days earlier per year) means their young miss peak insect season.
- Researchers trawling through plant records found a four-to-five day advance in flowering times for North American plants over the past 120 years – as much as 15 days at lower elevations.
One study alone identified more than 200 species whose ‘life stages’ were advancing by at least 2.8 days per decade.
On the macro scale, global warming is set to deepen the phenological chasms between entire ecosystems. Species dependent on more than one ecosystem to support their lifecycle are immediately impacted. Consider birds dependent on both aquatic and terrestrial environments, for instance, or fish migrating between freshwater and marine ecosystems – the kind of fundamental shifts which the UNEP warns could ultimately lead to “widespread food-web disruptions.”
Plant life is sensitive to the same climate triggers, so crop quality and yields are another source of concern. Phenological shifts have been recorded in cereals and wheats, and also in fruit trees such as pears and apples.
Evolution cannot be relied on to keep pace because natural selection takes time. While there are some instances of comparatively rapid ‘microevolutions’ in some birds and insects, even this defensive tool will soon be rendered impotent by climactic heating potentially 100 times more rapid than in previous warming periods.
Maybe these are the facts which make us, humankind, sit up and take notice. We do not live in exclusion from the biosphere – we are a part of it – we depend upon it for our very survival.
If animals starve, if sea life dwindles, if crops fail, we too eventually starve, dwindle and fail. So, it pays us to remain attuned to nature’s early warning system.
Nature’s speaking loud and clear – now we must act
We do not have to sit back and spectate as the plants and animals around us lose their struggles to survive and as we, inevitably, lose our standards of living. There are things we can do to address some of the challenges we face from nature’s rapidly shifting rhythms. Think of them as the Five Fundamentals of Phenology:
- We must help farmers, especially those in the developing world, adopt more sustainable management techniques, including organic fertilizers and better selective breeding.
- We must embrace the idea of new seed technologies via climate-resistant cultivars, more seed sharing banks, and stronger support services for those industries whose job it is to feed the world.
- We must ensure that records on migration patterns and harvest cycles are kept up to date, so the agricultural and fishing industries know how to adapt their seasonal strategies.
- We must rehabilitate habitats and safeguard wildlife corridors to strengthen genetic diversity and foster ecosystem resilience.
- Above all, we must aggressively address the underlying cause of phenological shifts – climate change and its consequent global heating.
Phenology has now been established as a key indicator of climate change.
The public and private sectors have an obligation to synthesize efforts on this unprecedented challenge: the public sphere via energy infrastructure planning and legislative frameworks; the private sphere via its vast financial resources and targeted technological investments.
Progress through collaboration
A dangerously heating world, of which shifting phenology is but one manifestation, should be a crisis with the potency to inspire action at every stratum of society – from the lofty heights of government and big business to the grassroots level of community projects.
Indeed, around the world we see voices massing and visions aligning. The importance of monitoring nature’s fluctuating rhythms can be witnessed in the emergence of global, regional and national ‘citizen science’ phenology collectives.
The Global Phenological Monitoring Programme monitors phenological activity from the Arctic Circle to the southern tropics. Likewise, the African Phenology Network, unites ecologists and meteorologists in studying biological cycles such as fruit-bearing and flowering. See too the UK Environmental Change Network and the USA National Phenology Network, which catalogue not just air, soil and water quality, but also plant and animal activity across a network of sites.
As the tell-tale phenological evidence continues to mount, perhaps we can begin to confront in a unified fashion the existential questions posed by climate change.
We play our part here at Abdul Latif Jameel in this singular mission. Our flagship sustainable energy division Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) now operates more than fifty solar and wind plants spanning five continents, and is anticipating an installed capacity of 4GW by 2024. The transportation industry’s green transition is in our sights, too, via investments by the Jameel Investment Management Company (JIMCO) in electric mobility pioneers like Greaves Electric Mobility, Joby Aviation and Rivian.
The Jameel Family’s global philanthropic activities, which includes Community Jameel, are supporting initiatives across the globe to help monitor the effects of climate change and their impacts on vulnerable communities, as well as breakthrough research that could help to address them.
These include the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, (co-founded in 2014 by Community Jameel and MIT) which fuels research, innovation, and cross-disciplinary collaborations focused on water and food systems. The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action brings together local knowledge, data science and humanitarian action to improve climate-related food security and nutrition in East Africa.
Similarly, the recently launched Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability is a comprehensive index assessing countries’ food security vulnerability. The aim is to develop a model to project global food demand, supply and bilateral trade under different climate-related scenarios. While the GCC Climate Liveability project, led by Community Jameel and AEON Collective, brings together world-class researchers to uncover and assess the evidence on the impact of climate change on health in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.
Foolhardy to ignore nature’s ‘red flags’
No one is pretending we exist in a static world. Ever since the emergence of life some 3-4 billion years ago our climate has been in flux. Until now, though, the gradual alterations to weather systems and atmospheric composition have allowed evolution to adapt and harmony to be achieved.
Not anymore. Manmade climate change is unfolding at an unparalleled rate, leaving many plant and animal species struggling to feed and reproduce. Many will fall out of the race entirely – a dilemma not just for them, but for the predators who feed on them, and the entire food chain above.
Our subconscious belief that we are somehow ‘separate’ from the ecosystem, or that we can manipulate its ebbs and flows to suit our needs, may be our gravest error. In reality, we toy with the mechanisms of the natural world at our peril. We will be the victims of an ecosystem in meltdown alongside every other creature, large or small, on the planet – as helpless as debris caught in a hurricane.
We need the humility to recognize that we constitute but one small part of this ecosystem, an ecosystem that we need far more than it needs us. Nature is waving enough red flags in our direction – those comprising phenological changes are just some of the more visible.
Having observed these warnings, we must now react. Only then can we embrace the science, act in an enlightened manner, and perhaps orchestrate our salvation.
Cartoon image illustrated by Graeme MacKay