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Researchers Observe Climate Change, First-Hand


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Environmental Forum. As climate changes, scientists report a tremendous loss in Arctic sea ice, an increase in extreme weather events - drought, floods and heat waves - and plants and animals moving to new places.

Our visit to the Aspen Environment Forum gives us the opportunity to talk with researchers who have been out in the field to see these changes firsthand. And what changes do you see where you live? What's measurably different? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, which is at npr.org.

We're going to be taking questions from the audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen, as well, and thanks, everybody, for coming in today.


CONAN: Biologist George Divoky and research ecologist Craig Allen are here with us at the Aspen Environment Forum, and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us from our usual home in Studio 3A in Washington, D.C., and welcome to you all.

George Divoky began studying sea birds on an island in Arctic Alaska more than three decades ago. He's gone back every summer since to follow the black guillemot. He's director and founder of Friends of Cooper Island. And I wanted to ask you. What's the most surprising change you've seen up there on Cooper Island over the past 35 years?

GEORGE DIVOKY: That's a very hard question, and it's a real pleasure to be here, and I thank both NPR and the Aspen Environment Forum. The biggest change, the most surprising change was the polar bears showing up on an island where, for 28 years, I lived and never saw a polar bear. And that was a real sign that the ice retreat was more than just the physical retreat of ice; that's always reported on, that habitat was being lost and, as a result, something that was tied to the pack ice had to now seek out land.

CONAN: That could also be a sign you needed a Kevlar sleeping bag.

DIVOKY: Well, that was exactly what happened. In 2002, one of the bears drove us out of our campsite, wrecked our tents. We had lived in tents for 28 years. We put a cabin on the island that following winter and have lived in an 8-by-12 cabin ever since.

CONAN: And what about the ice? What have you seen there?

DIVOKY: Well, it turns out that the species I started to study in 1975 is a species that is tied to the ice. It was trapped in the arctic during the last glacial maximum. So it feeds on prey that's found in the arctic. And as the ice started to retreat, its prey was being taken away from the colony, and as a result, they couldn't raise their young.

So starting in the mid-'90s and going to the present time, I've seen this major change in prey type and in prey abundance, so that we now have chicks dying in the nest due to lack of food, which we never saw when the ice was close by. And the birds have had to adapt to a - to an ice-free arctic in August, which was not the case in the past.

CONAN: That's got to affect a lot more than the birds and the bears.

DIVOKY: Yes. And that is an important point, is that I am studying the canary in the coal mine. It is - what happens to these birds is of interest to me and four other people who are interested in guillemots in the world. But what is happening, and it's certainly the most - the thing that comes to mind first is the fact that there are people who live in the Arctic, who have a lifestyle; the Inuit, who live in Barrow, who help me out all summer. They've been living there for thousands of years, and the habitat that their whole culture has been adapted is changing rapidly. It's also just a sign that this change is taking place in the Arctic now, but as has been brought out here in many papers in the past few days, it's going to be taking place in North temperate areas in the very near future, and it certainly is taking place now, as Craig will talk about soon.

But it's just so clear in the Arctic because when you have a change of temperature, it melts ice. If you get an increase in temperature above 32 degrees, ice starts to melt, and that's unequivocal. And so you get a phase change in what had been the dominant part of the landscape up there, which had been ice, which suddenly turns into water.

CONAN: So what happens in the arctic doesn't stay in the arctic.

DIVOKY: That's true.

CONAN: All right, let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to see what changes you can see where you live, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Michael's on the line with us from Gainesville.

MICHAEL: Hi, Michael Williams here.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. You're on the air.

MICHAEL: We see significant environmental changes here. I own a lake property right outside of Gainesville, and my dock is about 10 feet tall, and the water is 40 feet from the dock. In addition to that, my father-in-law works for a county agency here, and they're getting a lot of calls regarding dry wells that are going to have to go deeper, and the water table is significantly lower.

We did get a lot of rain this weekend, you might have seen on the news, a tropical storm dumped a lot of rain, about eight inches. But, you know, it's neither here nor there. It really doesn't make a dent.

We're seeing - when I was younger here, it would rain every single day during the summer, and now it doesn't really do that. We might have three, four weeks without rain, and then in addition to that, you know, a lot of the industry is pulling record amounts of water out of the aquifer.

So we see a significant change here, even the rivers. The Suwannee River, a very large river, runs through the Southeast, and that's at a record low, too, so...

CONAN: I wanted to bring Richard Harris into the conversation, NPR science correspondent, with us from Studio 3A. And Richard, A, thanks very much for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: My pleasure, Neal, yeah.

CONAN: And B, can the kind of changes that Michael's describing there in northeastern Florida, is that measurable?

HARRIS: It sounds measurable to me. I guess the question is: How much can you attribute to what factors? Because obviously, we're seeing the global climate change, but we're also seeing a lot of other changes in water use and in any number of things.

So, yes, when you see something like that, you can say, you know, it's real, it's happening, but actually attributing it to a particular cause is always tricky. And that's been a broader issue of concern for global climate scientists, trying to figure out when you can actually say this is caused by climate change. And that's a trickier question to answer.

CONAN: And George - excuse me, Michael, the tropical storm, I guess now, Debby, we're hearing 15 to 25 inches in some places. That doesn't make much of a difference? I guess he's hung up, but we thank him very much - oh, are you still there?

MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah. I think it does make a short-term difference, of course, but, you know, whenever you talk about a 10-year span, it seems that we've had not the same, you know, rainfall that we need in the area. It doesn't really seem to make a dent. You know, we might get, you know, a foot here and, you know, a big, large downpour, but other than that, you know, it really needs to be a significant, you know, rainfall over a long period of time.

I keep telling everybody, you know, this isn't - it's not really going to make a difference unless it continues to rain. And then, you know, the industry part - and that's kind of why I wanted to call in because how can we fight locally to make sure that our water, you know, our aquifer and our water sources are, you know, stay high, you know, when we don't know exactly what it is.

I mean, couldn't it possibly be a factor of everything? You know, the old-timers here, they - oh, that lake was low back in 1910, that lake was that low. And, you know, then 50 years later, it was, you know, running over the street. So how do we know if it's just a natural cycle, or is it a natural cycle with all the new industry?

I mean, there's a plant right down the street that makes plywood, and they have three, 36-inch pipes pulling water straight out of the aquifer, and that's not even three miles from my lake. So I kind of think it might be...

CONAN: I guess that's an argument for study and research. It's measure, measure, measure, and take care to note everything. But thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Great topic, thank you so much.

CONAN: Thank you. Let's introduce our other guest, the topic not rain, as we're hearing from Tropical Storm Debby in Colorado, but wildfires, record-breaking wildfires in several places. Just to the east of us, a massive fire has now destroyed 200 homes, thousands have evacuated. It's still spreading. Lots of factors, of course, in play here, as well: drought, mild winters, varying wind patterns.

But the root of it all is fuel, the trees. Joining us now is Craig Allen, research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey. He's been studying forests and trees in the Southwestern U.S. and globally for the last 30 years, and it's good of you to be with us here in Aspen.

CRAIG ALLEN: It's a great pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what's the biggest change you've seen?

ALLEN: Well, I've been studying this landscape in northern New Mexico for more than 30 years now, basically my whole adult life. And the changes I was studying up to that point - I came there to study landscape change, but I was reconstructing change over time periods of centuries or in some cases even thousands of years.

And one of those big changes was one you just alluded to, that because of human suppression of fire in the late 1800s, early 1900s, forests throughout the Southwest region have largely densified, they've gotten thicker, more woody material, more fuel from a fire perspective.

That has now converged with longer fire seasons, the warming temperatures in the West, snow pack doesn't last as long. The fire seasons are about two months longer now than they were. The result has been increasingly large and increasingly severe wildfires.

CONAN: And what does that do - well, obviously that burns down the trees. But trees themselves are showing signs of change, as well. There's huge swaths of trees that seem to be dying.

ALLEN: Yeah, well, which is actually the main thing I've been working on the last 10 or so years, is working with many colleagues, both in Western North America and around the world, trying to understand what does it take to kill a tree? It turns out we know how to - as ecologists, we know how to grow trees; we don't know how to kill them, at least not in a quantitative enough way in models.

But what we see, the Southwest is kind of in the bull's-eye of an area - one of the first areas because it's a semi-arid region. Trees are already at the natural limits of how dry it can be where they can grow. The increased warming combined with natural drought variability now are getting global change-type droughts, where the water stress on the trees is greater. And we're seeing trees dying, millions of acres of trees in the last decade.

CONAN: From what?

ALLEN: From combinations of direct drought stress and being amplified by things like bark beetle outbreaks.

CONAN: Bark beetle?

ALLEN: Bark beetle.

CONAN: And are the conditions that they are in - what helps a bark beetle kill a tree?

ALLEN: Well, it's sort of like people, when you're stressed, if your immune system is depleted, that you're less able to defend yourself from pathogens. And it's the same with trees when they're under drought stress - and heat increases the water stress on the trees, reduces their ability to defend themselves. They have - they make plant defense compounds, things like resin. And the - when the trees are in a weakened condition, they're not able to repel these insects when they attack them and - which can kill the trees.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Jeff, and Jeff calling us from Denver.

JEFF: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate the show.

CONAN: Thanks.

JEFF: To add to the point about the beetle infestation, my understanding was that climate change has not allow sufficiently cold winters to kill off the larvae and interrupt the life cycle of the ips beetle and therefore a much greater infestation, and therefore, you know, we're seeing the evidence with the fuel(ph) - just all these dead tree stands that made these fires much worse and much harder to...

CONAN: Is that right, Craig Allen? Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to get Craig Allen in on that.

ALLEN: Yeah. Basically, although it's - what's known as for the - this mountain pine beetle, it's not an ips beetle, but yes, that they're susceptible to being killed by extreme cold temperatures in the winter. And we're not seeing those extremes anymore, which is allowing the beetle populations to explode more easily.

CONAN: And you had another point?

JEFF: Well, I think the local media has said, oh, here's how fires are caused and everything, but they've missed the opportunity to say that our human behaviors have contributed to this. I have a question for your panel. Do we have a way to get science of this nature more in the forefront, more in the public so people can kind of relate it directly? I mean, this is visual, graphic, really tragic evidence of, you know, global climate change and how we have an opportunity to change our behavior to affect - to reduce that change.

CONAN: George Divoky, what do you think?

DIVOKY: Well, when I look at climate change, I'm always most impressed with the physical data. Given what is happening to glaciers around the world and given the fact that it is now an almost certainty that the Arctic pack ice will disappear in the 21st century, that is the sort of information and certainly what Craig is finding out and what I'm finding out are good stories to tell about climate change. But when you see that sort of data being reported by the media and the public just basically accepting, oh yes, soon we won't have a polar ice cap in the summer, it just indicates to me that somehow the story needs to be brought to the forefront and the consequences of that ice loss; 50 years down the road, what will be happening in North America due to that ice loss needs to be brought up.

CONAN: We're at the Aspen Environment Forum, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Richard Harris, I wanted to go back to you on that point in Washington, D.C.

HARRIS: Yeah. What in particular?

CONAN: Well, how are we going to get - these people are studying specific aspects of this, but how do you collect it all into some powerful argument that seems to make some difference in people's lives?

HARRIS: That is a very tricky question to answer because actually there's some literature - in the psychology literature - that says if you scare people too much, they'll just turn off and they'll say global warming isn't happening. So you have to be careful to stick to the facts. You have to be careful when you are able to talk about things that are in the future with what degree of confidence you have that you're actually - the forecasts are likely to come to pass.

And what also the psychological literature says is give people some hope, find, you know, suggest ways that you - we can cope with these situations. And so just sort of piling on more and more gloom and doom does not actually end up stirring action in many cases. It actually may have the opposite effect. And I bring to mind the - what's happening in North Carolina right now, the fight over how much is sea level going to rise. And there's been a move in the state legislature there to say we won't accept any forecasts that say that it's going to raise any faster than it ever has been.

And even though many competent scientists say, well, it's actually going to rise much faster than that when you look at what's happening to melting ice, not sea ice, not in the Arctic but in Greenland and in Antarctica and just sort of the fact that the ocean waters swell up as they get warmer. So that's, I think, really quite a telling view of the kind of backlash that you can get.

CONAN: Let's get to a question here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen. Nancy is on the mic.

NANCY REDFEATHER: Aloha. So my name is Nancy Redfeather. I live on the island of Hawaii, which is the southern-most island in the chain. It's about 19.5 degrees latitude. And what we have been seeing in the central Pacific over the last couple of years is drought to deluge. So starting in the summer of 2009 and going to the spring 2010, we had a severe drought on the island of Hawaii, especially on the leeward side where I live at the 1,500-foot level. It was followed by an entire year of rain, and in - we usually have a six-month dry, six-month wet season.

But after a year of rain, the ground was so saturated that on May 4, 2011, and NRCS estimates that 340 million gallons of water came down the hill, and my farm is on that pathway, and it was a severe weather event, they called it. It was coupled with lightning and thunder that set all the electrical poles on fire on my street. And that was - this weather event in May 2011 was followed by another eight months of drought of two-tenths of an inch of rain. And it just started raining in the normal rainy season about two months ago, and we're receiving about 60 to 70 percent less rain than normal.

CONAN: And what do you grow in your farm?

REDFEATHER: I have coffee, mixed vegetables, orchard crops.

CONAN: That's a pretty precise report. You've been obviously paying close attention.

REDFEATHER: Well, I think farmers really care about that kind of thing, especially when two feet of water come down through your whole farm.

CONAN: Yeah. They can call it a severe event. You call it disaster.

REDFEATHER: It wasn't even reported in our paper.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much.

REDFEATHER: You're welcome.

CONAN: We appreciate the report. More in a moment about the changes we're seeing in the environment around us. What changes do you see where you live? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now we're at the Aspen Environment Forum, talking about the environmental changes we're seeing firsthand. What changes do you see where you live? What's measurably different? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation as well at our website at npr.org. We're also taking questions from the audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen. Our guests are NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who's back in Studio 3A in Washington; here in Aspen, biologist George Divoky, who's founded and directs the Friends of Cooper Island; and Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey.

I want to read a couple of the emails we've been getting. This from Lee in the Pacific coast: The biggest change I've noticed in the Pacific Northwest is much higher temperatures. Sixty years ago, it was rare for daytime temperatures to reach the 80s. Now those temperatures and higher are commonplace. This from Pete in Denver: Sixty-four-year-old man, worked in parks my whole life in the Denver area. I am now sunburned through my T-shirt. I am concerned the atmosphere may be losing the capacity to provide deadly ray filtration.

And this from Mike in Missouri: Typically the arrival of the metrotropical songbirds - neotropical - excuse me, I can't read - neotropical songbirds is timed with the emergence of new tree leaves in the spring. This is important because the new leaves are susceptible to insect attack at this stage, but are kept in check by these insect-eating birds. This year the trees leafed out four to six weeks early so the birds weren't here to eat the insects and protect the trees. As a result, you could hear the grass falling to the forest floor as the insects feasted on the new spring leaves.

And George Divoky, I wonder, do you follow bird news other than about the black guillemots?

DIVOKY: Yes, I do, Neal. And this issue about having species that have timed their migration to have their young be raised at the period of peak prey abundance, which is what all birds try to do, is have it so the young are being fed in the nest and leaving the nest when the prey is most abundant - now, with the prey becoming more abundant earlier because of things like your person who wrote in on the email said, that there is a real chance that you're going to have birds not able to raise as many young as they have in the past.

There will be, with time, some sort of modification because clearly the early bird gets the worm, but there are trailing birds that also may do well if they can get by. So we are looking at a thing where birds are being selected for a wide range of changes in the environment that are taking place, including on my island, that didn't take place in the previous 1,000 or 2,000 years. So that's happening throughout North America now with these changes that we're seeing.

CONAN: Also get reports of Carolina wrens in New England. Is that just a couple of species, or is that happening broadly?

DIVOKY: Oh, it's - I mean, it is happening broadly. Birds don't disperse that rapidly, even though they're obviously one of the better things that can respond to climate change, because they can fly, unlike plants, which would obviously take some time to move their ranges north. But it's happening rather slowly in Alaska. What is more disconcerting now is seeing how the biomes in the state of Alaska will be changing over the next 50 years, realizing that any bird that shows up thinking that the Boreal Forest that was there in the early 21st century is going to be there in the mid-20th century is going to be more surprised. So the actual mismatch might not be the main issue. It may be the fact that the habitat has changed so greatly that - that the bird won't have any place to be.

CONAN: Let's go next to a caller. This is Dennis. Dennis with us from Athens, Ohio.

DENNIS: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Dennis. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

DENNIS: Hi, Neal. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

DENNIS: Now, we have a maple bush down here. We make syrup, you know, we make syrup each year.

CONAN: And you have to turn down that radio down, or you're going to be mightily confused.

DENNIS: Yeah. I'm trying to walk away from it right now. (Unintelligible) go out.

CONAN: I've been trying that for 30 years. It's not work out.


DENNIS: Can you hear me now?

CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead, please.

DENNIS: All right. I'm sorry. Yeah. You know, we make maple syrup, and I've noticed that our trees are making - they seemed to be making less sap each year. You can almost see it going down, you know, maybe like 5 percent...

CONAN: And...

DENNIS: ...each year as it progresses.

CONAN: Do you attribute that to warmer temperatures?

DENNIS: Well, you know, Jefferson tried to make maple syrup in Virginia and couldn't do it. He wanted to, but there's seems to be a southern - a line south of which the maple trees won't produce sap...

CONAN: Craig Allen...

DENNIS: ...in quantity.

CONAN: ...I'm not sure you have much experience with maple trees in New Mexico, but you can help us out here?

ALLEN: Well, actually, I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin. And my father makes maple syrup every year in a little place just a little bit of Green Bay, with red maples, not sugar maples, but it's pretty similar. And, yeah, he had a wild year this year. I went back the last week of March to help him. March is the syrup season there. Normally, that window, the last week's been a good week for a while. He, unprecedentedly, had to - he tapped the trees on the fifth of March, and he had to pull the taps on the 15th because the season was actually already over. They had that - everybody recalls, the Midwest, the upper Midwest has a crazy March, and it was the 80s for multiple days in Green Bay in the early March.

CONAN: Well, we're sorry for your maple harvest, Dennis.

DENNIS: Oh, well, you know, like your (unintelligible) says, they're literally out walking around in t-shirts in January, which isn't correct. You know, you're kind of snow, but, yeah. But, you know, I think there is a line south of which, like I said, and it seems to be creeping north each year. Now, I don't know what that means, but, you know, I think our trees are being affected by something.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

DENNIS: All right. Well, thank you, Neal. I love your show again. OK, bye.

CONAN: Thanks again. Let's go to a mike here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen. Marie.

MARIE: Good afternoon. I'm Marie Steeple(ph), from Vero Beach, Florida. When we first moved to Florida in 1979, we coped with wind and with rain. But through the '90s and today, particularly, we cope with tornadoes in addition to that. So in addition to being told that we're - we have to prepare for hurricane - the Tropical Storm Debby, we now are under a hurricane watch in Indian River County. Is this the new normal? I mean, in a tornado watch in Indian River County. So now we deal with wind, rain and tornadoes. It just changed our preparation plans dramatically.

CONAN: Richard Harris, back in Washington, D.C.; extreme weather events, has there been a measurable increase?

HARRIS: There's certainly have been changes in extreme weathers. Hurricanes, in particularly though, are a little bit tricky, which is the hurricanes - we actually are coming out of a multi-decade low of lower-than-normal hurricane activity. So the new normal is higher than we're used to, but that's probably a natural cycle, at least at this point. There's some theoretical projections that say hurricanes may become more intense but, you know, as the ocean heats up and provides more energy to them. But that's not clear that there'll be more of them, but the ones we have may be more intense.

As far as tornadoes are concerned, there is no really strong link between the prevalence of tornadoes and climate change, although, again, we, obviously, in the last couple of years had some kind of wild tornado weather as well. But so far no one is saying that's attributable to global change.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mark(ph), and Mark is with us from Coconut Grove in Florida.

MARK: Yes, thank you. I had an observation and also a question that is not related to the observation. The observation was, I grew up in equatorial Andes as a child, and there's a volcano there called Cotopaxi that's always snow-capped and rather dramatic, kind Mount Fuji look. And the last time I went there a couple of years ago, the snow line had receded up towards the summit rather significantly, and it was a very impressive thing to see.

And the question that I have, once again not related to that, is although people normally see changes are negatives, are there any studies looking at the climate change to look for what benefits it might have?

CONAN: Richard...

MARK: I mean, human studies, not bark beetle studies.

CONAN: No, I understand. Richard Harris, is there anything like that?

HARRIS: Well, people surely look at the melting ice in the summer in the Arctic Ocean and say, hey, here's a new shipping lane for us. And so, clearly, there are winners as well as losers. I think human beings can adapt quite often to climate change better than natural systems can, though, and I think that there - you probably - I think it's much harder to define winners or losers in natural systems. But clearly, you know, the prospect of having crops being able to grow farther north are good - is good news for Northern farmers. Obviously, it's bad news for people who are in the South and maybe used to growing crops they can't grow anymore So, yes, there are winners as well as losers. But probably, in terms of natural systems, it's more just coping with disruption and - than being able to say, hey, we're better off now than we used to be.

CONAN: George Divoky, let me ask you. In years past, the Northwest Passage through Canada and around through down through the Bering Strait is more theoretical than practical because of the packed ice, more practical these days. I wonder, in Cooper Island, do you see any effects?

DIVOKY: Well, we actually had a sailboat and we've had sailboats that's, in the past, have gone through Northwest Passage, and it used to be a very big deal to do so. It was something those sailors really wanted to do because you have to pick your year and pick your dates. Now, with the talk of a Northwest Passage and also a Northeast Passage shipping lane, it means that Cooper Island will be close to major tanker traffic or major traffic by cargo ships at least.

And they are preparing for this in the Bering Strait. The Coast Guard has a minimal capacity at Barrow, at the Bering Straits or Nome. And Kodiak is the closest place where they have any sort of force at all. But they're realizing that they're going to have to be moving in and being able to respond to things like ships that lose their steering and all the other things that can happen to ships at sea.

CONAN: Hard for people to understand just how far away Kodiak is from you.

DIVOKY: Oh, yes, you know, yeah. It's - I don't know the actual mileage, but it's...

CONAN: A whole bunch.

DIVOKY: Yes, yes.


CONAN: That's a going to be quite a change. We're talking with people here at the Aspen Environment Forum about changes that we've been able to see in the environment. You just heard George Divoky, who usually spend his summers on Cooper Island in the Arctic. And Craig Allen is with us. He's a - studies trees with the United States Service. And also back with us in Washington is NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is from Peggy in Pennsylvania: "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water" by Fishman is a well-researched book on water. Anyway, changes I see in Pennsylvania: invasive plants like poison ivy, grape vine, et cetera, are now thriving in jungle-like climate.

Craig Allen, as we mentioned, plants obviously migrate more slowly than birds, but are you seeing migration?

ALLEN: Sure at the - there's a number of studies showing that, for instance, tree species are moving up-slope, although the individual trees don't move other than in some Tolkien's books, but through prophogills(ph), they can establish. But it's one of the concerns of ecologists is that, in contrast to birds, trees, adult trees can't move. They're stuck in place, and so they can - trees die faster than they grow. They get 100-year-old tree in a new place. With new species, will take 100 years, and climate is a moving target at this point. The vegetation may not be able to keep up. So weedy plants, these kind of plants, like your - the writer described - are doing well.

There are some concerns that we're, you know, fostering kind of a weed world where these things, they can spread broadly, reproduce quickly, often with short life cycles. But things that live a long time are not favored by that, and trees are part of that...

CONAN: So weed as in poison ivy, as opposed to wheat, which I heard first, as opposed to durum semolina.

ALLEN: Yes, I mean, weeds.

CONAN: Weeds, all right.

ALLEN: Yeah, yes.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email. This is along the same lines from Susie in Boone, North Carolina: Our black raspberries have peaked - used to peak in mid-July. Some of the blueberries are already ripened, never before the end of July, early August, until just a few years ago.

Richard Harris, I'd like to go back to you in Washington. You've been reporting on the Rio+20 talks. These were wildly seen to have come up with very little in terms of international consensus to respond to these changes.

HARRIS: Yes, indeed. I think what we saw was a long period of trying to build up to a conference that could produce something and, ultimately, did not succeed, certainly not only a governmental level. I think the idea of being to have a global consensus about how to deal with all of these problems - and not just environmental problems, but how the environmental problems are interlinked with development: eradication of poverty, the provision of fresh water and sanitation and so on. It turns out that there's no easy formula, surprise, surprise, for dealing with all of that. And but it also seemed the tone of the conference was that people just were not in a mood to try to take on this huge problem right now between the economic crisis in Europe and the political uncertainty here in the U.S. and enumerable other issues.

Basically, the governmental part of this conference kind of ended with a thud. The - there were a lot of sort of individual initiatives that took place that sort of said, maybe we can build something from the bottom up. But when you have huge problems like this; building solutions from the bottom up maybe the most effective way to go, but it's also a slow road.

CONAN: We've also been talking about plants and animals responding to climate change. Are there solid indications that people are responding to climate change as well? Farmers from drought-stricken areas moving into cities, that sort of thing.

HARRIS: Well, I think that that's happening maybe slowly. I think people are more just getting stuck with what the climate is bringing them right now. I think people are planning ahead and thinking about, well, gee, maybe we could move vineyards to different places and are starting to plant vineyards in places where they haven't grown successfully before, and so on. But it's, you know, it is - if you're a farmer in a particular locale, you sort of have to solve your problems as you find them.

And we know that the weather is variable anyway from year to year. And so there is sort of resilience built into these systems for people who are used to having good years and bad years, and so on. And it's just sort of a - maybe a change of the odds of having a good year versus a bad year, so. So, clearly, people are struggling this - with it already. And as the planet changes more, they're going to have to struggle more and then figure out new ways of dealing with it.

CONAN: Well, Richard Harris, thanks as always, very much for your time. Appreciate it and keep Studio 3A warm for us.

HARRIS: OK. Will do. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris, with us back in Washington, D.C. Our thanks as well to our guests here at the Aspen Environment Forum. Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey, and also George Divoky, a director and founder of Friends of Cooper Island, who spent more than 30 summers doing research on that remote island in Arctic, Alaska. When are you heading back, George?

DIVOKY: I'm heading back later today, and I will be blogging from there if people want to go to cooperisland.org or Adventures in Climate Change. They can see how the birds and bears in Cooper Island do over the next two months.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us here today. Special thanks to David Monsma and Nicole Alexiev of the Aspen Environment Forum, our engineers here in Aspen Shawn Phillips and Patrick Murray and all the crew, of course, back in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow, we'll talk about troubles facing the Colorado River, and why that may affect the food you put on your dinner table. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Aspen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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