Our planet is a dynamic place, always changing. That’s a given. Some 100 million years ago, most of the rocks under the Bay Area were beneath the ocean somewhere near the equator. And 12,000 years ago, during the last ice age, there was no Bay and the coastline was out near the Farallones. So change isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it just is.
Back then, the forests along the San Mateo coast were dominated by grand fir, which grows best in a cool, moist climate. As the planet warmed and central California got drier, grand fir gradually shifted northward, tracking its preferred conditions. If you were a local animal or a plant at the time, and attached to having grand fir as part of your life, you would have moved north as well, or else adapted to the new conditions.
Those included the gradual filling of the river valley that became San Francisco Bay. The indigenous people of that time were also likely attached to their village sites on the shores of the young bay, but they certainly had to move their villages from time to time over the course of 8,000 years to keep ahead of the rising waters.
That was then. Now, the world is still warming, but at a vastly accelerated pace, thanks to 250 years’ worth of greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere. The resulting climatic changes are happening faster than plants and animals can evolve in response. And migration to suitable habitat may not be an option anymore, given the roads, houses, power plants, and shopping centers we’ve erected. And with all that infrastructure, our “villages” can’t be so easily moved to higher ground. Clearly, being a native plant or animal is about to get even harder than it has been.
I recently visited the rugged coast of northern Sonoma. Here, huge waves pound the craggy rocks along the shore with such force it’s hard to believe anything can survive there. And yet, from the sea palms standing upright in the wild surf to the mussels and barnacles clinging to the rocks to the harbor seals and oystercatchers and grebes feeding on the prolific fish and invertebrates, life here is astoundingly abundant. And tenacious. But when increasing CO2 deposition makes the ocean so acidic that mussels and barnacles can no longer form shells, that tenacity may become a curse rather than a blessing.
We know that big changes are coming. What we don’t yet know is how this immense and unruly phenomenon of climate change will play out on the ground here. But answering that question is crucial if we’re to deal with the changes already happening and at the same time prevent even greater impacts down the line.
That’s why, in this issue of Bay Nature, we look at the emerging science of climate change, to see what scientists and researchers are learning about its impact on Bay Area ecosystems, and on us. The story is a sobering one.
And yet, climate change is about to meet “change we can believe in,” offering hope that, as a region and a nation and a planet, we might muster the will and mobilize the resources to confront this change head-on and eyes open.
Yes, we can.