Arctic Sea Ice – melting, melting…

Are we melting? When I was a kid, I learned that the world was heading back to another ice age. The argument was reasonable enough. Evidence in charts, graphs, and photos showed that the 1970s were the tail-end of a mild period between global glaciers. Our grandchildren would have to deal with icy summer mornings and ever-deepening snow drifts. (However, even back in 1970, other scientists were already predicting global warming, due to fossil fuel use – but the Ice Agers were still pretty persuasive.) An icy forecast doesn’t seems so likely today. And so it is with science. We amass data, make interpretations, publish conclusions. Forecasting is not really science in the strictest sense. Science uses repeatable experiments, it tests hypotheses against control samples. You may be lucky enough to discover something new by controlling variables and observing results. But great discoveries rarely result in a scientist running naked through the streets, shouting, “Eureka!” – instead, the scientist is more likely to mutter something like “Hmm? What’s going on here?” when interesting results are noticed.

History is littered with scientists who became minor footnotes by failing to notice the real implications of their findings. And it is just as frequently littered with the debris of great thinkers who could not adjust to new ideas. At the time that we were anticipating the next ice age, most aging geoscientists dismissed a silly concept called “continental drift”. Although Wagner proposed the idea of mobile continents in 1912, his theory was still being dismissed as late as 1968 by the established earth scientists who saw the concept as fringe science. Not long ago, predictions of a coming Ice Age and rejections of Plate Tectonics were among the prevailing ideas in science.

Global weather science doesn’t allow rigorous scientific experimentation. We can’t make guesses (hypotheses) and run experiments, while keeping a controlled, non-varying sample world at the other end of the lab table. There is only one Earth. We can’t go back and try again, adding less carbon dioxide to see the air to test what would happen. We can try computer modeling, but we are limited by the variables we know are important to the simulations. We aren’t likely to get them all added into the mix. Nevertheless, the simulation results so far are portentous. And the observed results – from Katrina and Sandy to disappearing arctic ice to submerging island nations – are scary. I’m not going to claim that we know with definitive certainty that the globe is irreversibly heating up. Probably. But not certainly. Is the releasing of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the cause of weather change? Probably.

So what does climate change mean for beekeepers? Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, we’ve had a warm October. September had been one of our hottest on record. October began with a high of 23 (about 72F); bees collected pollen off-and-on through the month, undeterred by a light October frost. (Decades ago, the killing frosts were in September.) The bees went on to enjoy days and days of mild temperatures – unusual for October. For example, on October 15, the overnight low was 10C (50F) which is downright balmy for mid-October in Calgary. But it makes no sense to pick individual days (current or historical) and use them as the basis of any argument. The meaningful statistics are in the long-term averages. In the USA, 2012 joins the years from 2001 through 2011 as the very warmest on record.

Of all the weather events in 2012, the most ominous to climate scientists is the loss of ice cover near the North Pole. In September, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the USA reported that Arctic sea-ice measured almost 20 per cent less than the previous record low, set in 2007. The mid-September ice cover was about half the average of the 1980s and 90s. This extra billion acres of exposed water absorbs more heat, increasing the water temperature and melting even more ice. The Canadian government weather scientists – when not muzzled by their political bosses – will tell you that the Arctic Sea may be without any ice cover as early as the summer of 2016. Even Exxon’s big boss, Rex Tillerson, has recently acknowledged the reality of global climate change – although he is pretty sure we can engineer our way out of its worst consequences. (From The Guardian, “In a speech on Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged that burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, but said society will be able to adapt.”)

You need to be aware that beekeeping may change dramatically with climate change. In general, climate changes are expected to bring hotter weather for the northern plains and prairies of North America’s mid-section. This could be a good thing for beekeepers around here – if droughts like this summer’s desert weather don’t become the norm. Other North American beekeepers may see more flooding in coastal apiaries and more droughts in southern croplands. How does the beekeeper prepare for this? If ever there was a time to be more efficient and to plan ahead, this is it. A beekeeper can organize bee routes in a way that will reduce environmental impact and save money.

The beekeeper also needs to be aware that good crops might be far better than ever, with huge bumper crops requiring a bigger stack of supers and some extra harvesting help; however, poor years might be even worse than awful – requiring feed for bees and extra precautions against drought-enhanced fires. To handle the really bad years, cash from the good years needs to be prudently saved. It will be more of a roller coaster adventure. All farming will be riskier, but beekeeping will probably suffer the greatest variations. In an area where hundred pound crops are the norm, several years without harvests may be followed by a year or two when the honey gods turn on the nectar flow in the spring and forget to shut it off again. But it is a lot more likely that things will go badly wrong – too much rain, or too little; too much sweltering heat, or an untimely frost. There are more things that might go wrong than will be compensated by things going better than usual.

The greatest single variable in honey production is the weather. Weak hives will sometimes make a fair honey crop. But with really bad weather, the best hives make nothing. In Canada’s wine country near Niagara Falls, William and Steve Roman report a season two weeks too early and less than half their norm, according to a Globe and Mail piece called, “Gold Rush: Harvesting honey on a wild weather schedule“. Meanwhile, PBS, America’s non-commercialized network, tells us “Unpredictable Weather Causes Pain for Beekeepers” and explains how Jeremy Jellinek of Michigan lost $100,000 this past season keeping bees. Jellinek told PBS, he “worries that more unpredictable weather patterns may further destabilize his business.” For a balanced and more scientific assessment, take a look at “Beekeepers Abuzz Over Climate Change and Hive Losses” in the Scientific American magazine.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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