Wolverine population threatened by climate change

The aggressive wolverine may not be powerful enough to survive climate change in the contiguous United States, new research concludes.

Wolverine habitat in the northwestern United States is likely to warm dramatically if society continues to emit large amounts of , according to new simulations carried out at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The study found that climate change is likely to imperil the wolverine in two ways: reducing or eliminating the springtime that wolverines rely on to protect and shelter newborn kits, and increasing August temperatures well beyond what the species may be able to tolerate.

"Species that depend on snow cover for their survival are likely to be very vulnerable to climate change," says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, the author of the study. "It's highly uncertain whether wolverines will continue to survive in the lower 48, given the changes that are likely to take place there."

Peacock's research focused on mountainous regions of the Northwest, the primary habitat of the wolverine population in the contiguous United States. The study did not look into the impacts of climate change on regions where wolverines are more numerous, such as Canada, although other research has indicated those areas will likely warm significantly as well.

The study was published last week in Environmental Research Letters. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor.

An animal built for the cold

Wolverines make their home mainly in the boreal forests and tundra regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Their thick, oily fur insulates them from frost and large padded paws help them run through deep snow. While some 15,000 or more wolverines are believed to roam Canada and an unknown number in Alaska, only a few dozen to a few hundred are believed to live in the contiguous United States, almost entirely in mountainous areas in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.

Wolverines inhabit regions that have late-season snow cover and relatively cool summer temperatures. Female wolverines make their springtime dens in the snow, which provides warmth to the newborn kits and protects them from predators.

Biologists are dubious that the species could survive in regions with little spring snow or significantly higher summertime temperatures. Concerned over habitat loss and the potential threat of climate change, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced in December 2010 that the wolverine warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but delayed that protection because other species took higher priority.

To project the future climate in regions of the contiguous United States where wolverines live, Peacock analyzed results from new simulations carried out by a team of researchers at NCAR using the newest version of the Community Climate System Model (which was developed by scientists at the Department of Energy and NCAR with colleagues at other organizations). She analyzed three scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions: low (carbon dioxide emissions stay at present-day levels until 2020 and then decline to zero by the early 2080s); medium-low (emissions rise slightly until 2040 and then decline sharply toward the end of the century); and high (emissions continue to increase unabated).

In the high emissions scenario, the computer simulations showed spring snow cover nearly or completely vanishing during the second half of this century in present-day wolverine habitat. Similarly, spring snow cover in the medium-low scenario became greatly diminished, with many years experiencing zero snow cover. Under the low emissions scenario, springtime snow cover conditions remained similar to those of the present day.

The computer projections also showed that August temperatures may increase dramatically. Whereas August temperatures currently top off at about 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) in areas where wolverines live, maximum daily temperatures by the end of the century were projected to frequently exceed 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) under the two higher-emissions scenarios.

"Unless the is able to very rapidly adapt to summertime temperatures far above anything it currently experiences, and to a spring with little or no snow cover, it is unlikely that it will continue to survive in the contiguous U.S. under a high or medium-low emissions scenario," the study concludes.

The model simulations also indicated the extent to which climate change may transform the West, where society depends on mountain snowpack. This critical source of water could decrease by a factor of three to four over Idaho, western Montana, and western Wyoming by the end of this century under the high emissions scenario. Even under the medium-low emissions scenario, snowpack could drop by a factor of two to three in these regions.

Peacock checked the accuracy of the model by comparing simulations of late 20th century climate with observations. Results indicated that the model did a good job simulating climate conditions in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Since the model tended to underestimate snowpack in Washington, Peacock did not include that state in the study.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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More information: Projected 21st century climate change for wolverine habitats within the contiguous United States, Synte Peacock, Environmental Research Letters, January 27, 2011
Provided by National Center for Atmospheric Research
Citation: Wolverine population threatened by climate change (2011, February 3) retrieved 17 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2011-02-wolverine-population-threatened-climate.html
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User comments

Feb 03, 2011
This article is about as ill-timed as Al Gore.

Feb 03, 2011
According to new computer model simulations.
Hears how the computer model works'
Input: Wolverines are endangered.
Output: Yes - Wolverines are endangered.
Junk in = Junk out.
Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are buried in snow thanks to La Nina you junk science clowns.
When are these Alarmist going to stop this endless alarmist crap!!!

Feb 03, 2011
This "research" is so useless that the scientists might as well have studied the effects of climate change on the Marvel Comics' Wolverine and the X-Men instead. The predictions are as fictitious as the cartoon series.

Feb 03, 2011
Good luck Mr and Mrs Wolverine.

Feb 04, 2011
Clearly, the authors of this paper have never studied animal behavior, nor know anything about nature. Wolverine kits are not hunted like hens by fox. You can probably count on one hand the number of kits that have had bald eagles snatch up their young. These are wolverines, not cute gofers.

And I would love to see the statistics on animals that have died from heat stroke in their natural habitat. I am pretty sure it's around... Um... 0 a year.

Wolves have the same traits and habitat, they are not suffering. This is nothing but absurd dramatics to get funding.

Feb 04, 2011
OH beautiful. This was paid for with NSF money. My money. I know where Congress can start in the effort to reduce the budget.

There's a comment about this article on Watts Up With That. Not sure how I feel about their comments yet.

The full version of the original study is available for free online. If you follow the trail of the research to the next layer up, and look up the sources referenced at the end of the paper, it's very interesting. It makes me wonder how these people reached some of the conclusions shown here, when the source material they used to make their report didn't seem to say this. This study isn't based on original research. It's all borrowed from previous work, and the computer runs were not intended for this purpose. They used the Community Climate Systems Model V4 runs, which were never intended to model small scale regional climate, and they certainly don't do snow very well.

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