Are we waiting for Godzilla?

Climate change is the single greatest threat to humanity, but we’re just not doing enough to stop it. Despite a litany of sensible policies on the table (carbon tax, cap-and-trade, subsidization of alternative energies) we can’t seem to get everyone on board with a solution. Between organizations hell-bent on climate change denial and politicians that are unwilling or unable to pursue real solutions, it can seem like we’re doomed to a hotter future – with all the environmental, social, and economic calamity that will follow.

97% of scientists accept the existence of Godzilla

I wonder if there would be ‘Godzilla skeptics’ in this situation?

So when I watched the new Godzilla movie,  I couldn’t help but see a striking similarity between the struggles that the characters experienced and the real-world troubles that we face now. (Alert; spoilers from here on!)

In this movie, two evil monsters (not Godzilla) run around the planet wrecking stuff, and are poised to produce enough babies to wipe out humanity for good. As with climate change, there was plenty of warning this would happen – a full 15 years pass between the first evidence of a problem, and the monsters actually hatching. Had policymakers acted, they could killed the eggs before they hatched, but instead they fired all the scientists and waited for the problem to get out of hand (of course).

To make matters worse, once the monsters actually emerged, the people in power continued to ignore scientific advice (the monsters eat radiation, stop using nuclear weapons!), and lots of people died as a result. In fact, the primary drama of the second half of the movie was humans racing to prevent a super-nuclear bomb from going off – well after it was obvious that this would never have worked and would have killed everyone in San Francisco.

In the film, the only thing that prevented total disaster was the help of Godzilla, who fought the bad monsters and solved everyone’s problems. There are so many conservation issues where we seem to take this approach – sit back and hope something will emerge from the ether that will solve everything.

Climate heating up? A volcano will take care of it! Biodiversity loss? No problem – we can use de-extinction! Running out of metals? Don’t reduce consumption – asteroid mining will save us!

Godzilla engaging in high-level climate negotiations

Godzilla engaging in high-level climate negotiations at the UN

It doesn’t need to be this hopeless. We have, right now, a wide range of actions that could immediately address climate change. We know that carbon taxes reduce emissions without harming the economy. We know that we don’t need to be burning coal – that energy can come from clean, renewable sources instead. Urban planners have proven that bike and public transit-based cities are sustainable, livable, and vibrant. And finally, we know that repairing damage from floods, droughts, and resource wars will cost way, way, more than reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, so it makes good sense to start right away.

I'll bet a carbon tax would have been cheaper than this

I’ll bet a carbon tax would have been cheaper than this

The path forward is laid out in a second documentary – er I mean summer movie – called Pacific Rim. In this movie, giant alien monsters invaded Earth through an undersea gateway that opened due to ocean acidification (seriously!). In response, humanity put their differences aside and worked collectively to build an army of giant robots that beat up the monsters and eventually closed the portal, saving the world once and for all. An appropriate solution for a global problem, if you ask me.

These two monster movies cover the same subject matter, but present completely different views on humanity’s ability to respond. In Pacific Rim, a concerted global effort defeats the threat, but at great cost (I’m not the first to notice the strong conservation message). In Godzilla, everything humanity does just make things worse, and the only hope for salvation lies in a giant fire-breathing monster emerging from the ocean and making the problem go away.

When trying to solve environmental problems, are we waiting for Godzilla? Or can we get together as a society and decide that enough is enough? After all, the evidence shows that we need to act right now.

It’s clear that we need to take action to heal our climate and protect our future, but how can you contribute? Check out this list of ten things you can do right now. Do them, tell everyone about it, and together we can punch climate change right in the face.

What happens when migratory songbirds are not on time?

By Kevin Fraser

Spring migration is like an ocean tide, flooding back northward until woodlands, parks and backyards are once again filled with the exuberant, liquid singing of migratory songbirds. The timing of migration also has a satisfyingly predictable ebb and flow; the countless trials and errors of individual birds over centuries are visible in the patterns we see today. If their timing is right, songbirds can avoid the harshest spring weather. They can get good places to nest, find their choice of mates, and enjoy the bounty of spring insects that they need to be successful parents. But new weather extremes and climate change may be disrupting these ancient patterns, causing birds to get out of sync with their environment.


Figure 1. Purple martin perched at a North American breeding colony. Martins migrate 10 000-20 000 km annually between breeding sites and overwintering roosts in South America (photo by Kevin Fraser).

Long-distance migratory songbirds, particularly those that migrate the furthest and feed on aerial insects (aerial insectivores), are showing steep population declines (State of Canada’s Birds 2012). There are likely many factors working in tandem to cause such declines, but could there be anything big and broad enough to affect all of these species at once?

One likely culprit is climate change and new extremes of weather, which may be affecting the relationship between migratory songbirds and their food. Research with the Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), a species that migrates between Europe and Africa, has revealed disturbing trends: as springs have become warmer over decades in Europe, the caterpillars preferred by Pied Flycatcher are available much earlier than they used to be. However, Pied Flycatchers seem to be missing the new dinner bell. Their migration timing has not changed much over the same time period, putting their arrival at breeding sites out of sync with peak caterpillar availability (Both et al. 2001). It is as if a dinner party’s time has been changed without your knowing, and when you finally arrive all the hors d’oeuvres have been eaten and everyone else is well through the main course. But, in the case of the Pied Flycatcher, the consequences of this mistiming are severe; they are declining the most sharply in locations where caterpillar peaks are the earliest (Both et al. 2006). These late arriving birds miss most of the food and are therefore less able to feed and fledge lots of young, which eventually results in population declines overall.


Purple Martin male w geotag, 2014-02-24 (1)

Figure 2. Purple Martin equipped with a light-level geolocator (visible on lower back) that will track migration to South America and back (photo by Jerome Jackson).

Much of my Liber Ero-supported research is focused on the Purple Martin (Progne subis) – an aerial insectivore that migrates between North and South America (Figure 1). On a decadal scale, we know that Purple Martin have been arriving earlier at their breeding sites as springs have been getting earlier (Zelt et al. 2012). But are martins changing their timing everywhere and are they doing it fast enough? Do individual martins have the flexibility they need to make adjustments in their year-to-year timing in response to changing climate and weather? Now that we have new tracking technology (geolocators) to follow the migration of individual birds (Figure 2), we have a unique opportunity to investigate how flexible martins are to different weather conditions they experience while migrating in spring. For example, did Purple Martin hear the early dinner bell in 2012, when spring was the earliest and hottest on record in eastern North America? If so, did they adjust their migration timing? We learned that the disappointing and short answer, is, no. We found that in 2012, martins did not depart earlier on spring migration from the Amazon, nor did they travel any faster than in previous years. They therefore did not arrive earlier at their breeding sites to match the advanced spring of 2012 (Fraser et al. 2013).

Part of the issue may be that martins are not receiving the weather signals they need to be able to adjust their migration timing successfully. To better understand what a martin on migration experiences, we measured weather conditions all along migratory routes, from the Amazon all the way up to their breeding sites. This is something we could not do until geolocators enabled us to identify the specific routes and timing of individuals. We found that temperatures were similar to previous years along much of the migratory route, and there was no indication of an earlier, hotter spring in 2012 until martins were back in North America and almost at their breeding colonies, thus they had little opportunity to hit the accelerator and arrive earlier (Fraser et al. 2013). So for martins, the insidious effects of mistiming could be contributing to population declines.

What can we expect of Purple Martins this spring with one of the latest and coldest springs on record? Early reports note that breeding arrival dates are more than a month later in some areas this year. It may be that martins are able, or forced, to put on the brakes during cold weather but are unable to hit the accelerator with an advanced spring, as we found in 2012. The data we are gathering with collaborators across the range will help us to answer these questions and more, so stay tuned.

We are now continuing to track martins with geolocators to measure directly how migration timing affects their ability to successfully raise young. This may not be the same each year and could vary widely by breeding location. Do the relative advantages of early or late migration change each year depending upon breeding location and the weather? Perhaps the wild variation in spring weather we have been experiencing in recent years will have bigger effects in some locations than others, which may help to explain the steeper population declines we see at the northern end of the breeding range for many aerial insectivores (Nebel et al. 2010, Fraser et al. 2012). We need to know these patterns so that we can better understand what is causing stronger declines in some places and prioritize effective conservation actions.

My Liber Ero research is conducted in partnership with many organizations, including the Purple Martin Conservation Association ( An extended version of this blogpost appears in the spring edition of their Purple Martin Update Magazine.


New paper: Seventy-One Important Questions for the Conservation of Marine Biodiversity

Conserving the oceans requires scientific information, but what areas do we need to prioritize if we’re to conserve effectively? In this newly-released paper, 21 authors from around the world compiled a list of 71 key questions that, if answered, would substantially advance our ability to conserve biodiversity in the marine environment.

The primary theme of these questions is that there are conservation issues unique to the marine environment that require special attention. Some of the questions address structural issues within the scientific community that we believe are precluding effective conservation (in a section we called ‘scientific enterprise’), while others focus on the well-known topics of climate change, fisheries, and other anthropogenic stressors. A section on ‘marine citizenship’ addresses the disconnect between people and the marine environment, particularly for those who do not see a direct connection between marine biodiversity and their own prosperity. This paper will be of particular use to people new to marine conservation, to get a sense of what we believe are the current important issues in the field.

Source: Parsons ECM, Favaro B, Aguirre AA, et al (2014). Seventy-One important questions for the conservation of marine biodiversity, Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12303