The Following appeared in the Lincoln Journal-Star on August 20th, 2005.

More photographs of the crisis at Smith Falls State Park

Guest View: 'Crossroads of biodiversity' at crossroads of climate change


Saturday, Aug 20, 2005 - 01:07:27 am CDT
I couldn't contain my excitement as we traveled down the gravel road toward the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. I had read about this jewel of biodiversity that existed in my home state but never really believed that a place like this could exist. I was going to see a biological relic of the last ice age that ended with the retreat of glaciers that covered North America 12,000 years ago. However, my emotions were mixed with sadness because I knew that climate change is threatening its existence.

During the last ice age, Nebraska was covered with spruce and birch trees, a cold-loving ecosystem now found predominantly in Canada and Alaska. When the glaciers retreated, the area began to warm, and the spruce and birch began to disappear in Nebraska. However, a small niche of paper birch (Betula papyrifera) still survives in Nebraska, hidden from the Sand Hills prairie. In a small, lush canyon at Smith Falls State Park, 15 miles from Valentine, trees from the northern, western and eastern parts of North America coexist to form an area that has been called the "crossroads of biodiversity."

How did this happen? Smith Falls is fed by cold spring water from the Ogallala aquifer, which cools the canyon, creating an artificial micro-environment that can support a northern tree such as the paper birch. For thousands of years, the paper birch stood with other northern, eastern and western flora within spitting distance of the grasslands of the Sand Hills. For all that time, its distinct white bark has decorated the canyon walls along the Niobrara River. But now, the paper birches are dying. They are no longer reproducing, and the last remaining trees are slowly dying. The paper birch is best adapted for a cool climate, which cannot be found in Nebraska except in the cool canyons on the Niobrara River. The climate globally has been warming in ways that are beyond the natural cycles of warming and cooling. Temperatures worldwide have climbed more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. Nine of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1990.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries, has agreed that human changes to the planet, including fossil fuel use, have begun to increase carbon dioxide levels, warming our planet through the greenhouse effect. Nebraskans can expect more long-term droughts such as the one currently covering most of the state, given the projections for future temperature rise.

In Nebraska, people always say to me, "Ryan, the global climate has been fluctuating for years. This is just a warm period in the cycle, but it will get cooler." Yes, it's true that our planet undergoes dramatic climate shifts. But those shifts usually occur over the span of thousands of years. The ones we're experiencing have occurred within the past 150 years. The rapid speed in which our climate is changing makes it likely that our drought will get much worse before it gets better.

If you don't believe that there has been climate change in our lifetime, travel to Smith Falls State Park and look for yourself. The bright white skeletons of countless paper birches tell a different story.

For thousands of years, they withstood the odds and survived hidden from the rest of the Sand Hills. But they can withstand no more, and one by one they're giving up. Soon there will be no more paper birches at Smith Falls, and their existence will only be a memory. But the problems in Nebraska caused by climate change will remain.

Ryan Lynch of Omaha graduated from Harvard this spring with a degree in biology. He plans to go to medical school after working for a year in Children's Hospital in Boston.