Signs posted near the boat ramp at Silver Lake in Dover, Del., warning of possible harmful algae growth. / Gary Emeigh, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal
WILMINGTON, Del. - From a surge in disease-carrying ticks and Tiger mosquitoes to increases in toxic algae blooms, the symptoms of climate change are rapidly affecting America's relationship with the great outdoors, the National Wildlife Federation warned Tuesday.
The NWF report assessed troubling climate-related changes in eight species.
Federation President Collin P. O'Mara, Delaware's former environmental chief, said the issues raised in the report are critical.
"As I have traveled the country over the last month and a half in this new role, when you talk with hunters or hikers or birders or kayakers or canoers, they will all tell you that things are changing," he said. "I think it's absolutely essential that we talk about these issues in a way that makes them more understandable."
A United Nations scientific panel has cited "unequivocal" evidence that global temperatures are rising steadily, pushed up by human-caused carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants and other sources.
In Delaware, even this year's mild June and July saw temperatures that were lower than in recent years, but well above the past century's average.
Without drastic emissions cuts, global temperatures are likely to rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or much more by the end of the century. That will trigger accelerating and drastic changes in weather, climate, agriculture, habitats and ecosystems.
One International Energy Agency official cautioned that without urgent action to curb emissions, a "Miami Beach in Boston situation" could arrive by century's end.
O'Mara pointed to Delaware on Tuesday as an example of a place where more-frequent and powerful storms and other signs of change have become increasingly apparent.
Delaware is one of 13 states that now account for 95 percent of reported Lyme disease cases. The illness often spreads through the bite of deer ticks, a species that is expected to flourish and spread as warmer winters increase the bug's survival rates and allow its range to expand.
Evidence is even more profound in New England, where warmer winter weather has helped another kind of tick population explode, decimating moose numbers that had been on the rebound.
Blue-green algae, a problem in Delaware waters, also could become a more common and widespread hazard, NWF officials said. Warmer water and increasing runoff triggered by more frequent torrential downpours can create a surge in concentrations of both algae and the toxins they produce, creating dense and sometimes dangerous surface mats.
One recent incident in Lake Erie and surrounding areas fouled water supplies relied on by hundreds of thousands of people.
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control signs now warn of the blue-green algae hazard in lakes and ponds across Delaware, including at Silver Lakes in both Dover and Rehoboth Beach.
"I fish a lot of tournaments throughout Delaware, and I see them around," said Gary Boyle, a Bowers Beach resident, launching boat into a noticeably green-tinted Dover Silver Lake on Tuesday afternoon. "I've seen them for a long time now, so I'm not really concerned."
But DNREC marine biologist Robin Tyler said that cloudiness in the Dover water was most likely blue-green algae at levels not yet dense enough to produce floating mats or high levels of toxins that can cause rashes, asthma-like problems or allergic reactions in people or animals.
"I'm not happy to see it," Tyler said. The algae has been around for ages, but is now getting greater attention as it overwhelms pond ecosystems. "Knowing what I know now about it, I wouldn't swim in it myself. I wouldn't suggest that anybody else do so."
Katharine Hayhoe, who directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and recently prepared a report on climate change for Delaware, said the NWF report "really brings home one of the most important things we need to realize about climate change."
"For so long, we've perceived climate change as this distant issue, one that only matters to polar bears and people up in the Arctic," Hayhoe said. "Today, though, we can see the evidence of climate change with our own eyes, in our own backyards."
Hayhoe, who lives in northwest Texas, said the 92-year-old grandmother of a good friend in her area was bitten by fire ants while gardening, in a part of the state considered too cold for the insect to thrive. Because of age and health and loss of sensation in her legs, she had little warning of the danger.
"She had so many bites she ended up in intensive care and nearly died because of a species she had never seen as long as she lived here in west Texas," Hayhoe said.
Doug Inkley, a senior scientist for NWF and lead author of the report, said the reality of climate change is everywhere, shown in rising numbers of garden-gobbling stink bugs. and weather and atmospheric conditions that make the substance on poison ivy leaves ever more irritating and toxic.
"What we have attempted to do is bring together in one place the best available science that's out there about how industrial carbon pollution is changing the game for people who enjoy going out into the American outdoors," Inkley said.
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