American Birding Podcast



Toads in the Tureen

Cockpit Country 1200

Global warming…global climate change…the global economy…globalization…think global and act local.

Global, like sustainable, has devolved to a modifier, to a hashtag. Slap global in front of a noun and the word sags from the added gravitas. Global climate change sounds important, while “local” climate change is insubstantial. Global terrorism is scarier than “your next door neighbor’s arsenal.” Global is the new green.

Jamaica 963 (2)Today I am worried about Jamaican climate change. I can’t relate to the world. Give me something to hold, to touch, to feel. I try to think globally, but it makes my head hurt and my hair catch on fire.

I believe that the climate is changing. I believe that the change is caused by man. I am perfectly content to follow the science. Today the science has led me to Jamaica.

The Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s largest remaining contiguous rainforest. Fractured karst, and collapsed caves and sinkholes, have left the Cockpit pocked and pitted. Pocks (the cockpits themselves) can be as deep as 400 feet in places. Each cockpit is separated from the surrounding pits by steep ridges.

Cockpits are humidity traps; rarely do pits drop below 100% saturation. A spectacular diversity of life has evolved within this region, much of which is endemic to the region itself or to Jamaica as a whole. Some plant species, for example, are restricted to a single cockpit. Endemic birds such as the red-billed streamertail, Jamaican lizard-cuckoo, Jamaican blackbird, ring-tailed pigeon, yellow-billed and black-billed parrots, and the crested quail-dove still haunt this isolated region.

The endemism in Jamaican birds is impressive. The adaptive radiation in land snails is overwhelming, with each cockpit a Petri dish for land snail evolution. According to the Windsor Research Centre, 2012 07 23_7187 - Copy

G. Goodfriend and G. Rosenberg have extended the number to 555 valid species [of landsnails], of which 499 (90%) are endemic to the island. Most of these species have very limited ranges and often do not occur across more than 1 to 4 parishes. The village of Auchtembeddie, on the southern periphery of the Cockpit Country, alone hosts 87 species of land snails, of which 69 (79%) are endemic – one of the highest densities of endemic land snails in the world.

Terra rosa soil settles to the bottom of each pit. The soil is blessedly fertile and friable, and local residents (the descendants of slaves and of the Maroon) have cultivated sweet potatoes, taro, and yams here for countless generations. The residents of the Cockpit Country, no more than 5000 in total, maintain a close link to their African heritage through their foods. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Cockpit Country.

Now Cockpit Country is threatened by both short-term and long-term threats. The terra rosa soil in the pits is rich in bauxite. The aluminum industry would like to mine this ore, stripping each pit of its bauxite and its heritage.

The long-term threat is climate change. The risk is from changes to rainfall and humidity. What happens within each pit when confronted by too much or too little rainfall? What is the possibility of a lower average humidity?

Researchers and planners have focused on coastal impacts to dramatize sea level change. Certainly the rise in average temperatures will lead to coastal displacements. James Hansen, a professor at Columbia University and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has said that

the global goal to limit atmospheric warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) “is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”

Jamaica 777 (2)What Hansen fails to mention (at least in this article) is that the global community (there is that word again) hasn’t agreed to work together to limit change to the magical 2 degrees Celsius. Such a rise, he admits, is still a disastrous temperature increase. We are toads in the boiling pot, steeping while the temperature slowly rises only to realize, too late, that we are poached.

Climate change is a global phenomenon, I understand. The impacts, however, are personal. The climate has changed on this planet before, and species have adapted, evolved, or disappeared. If you are willing to ignore the impacts on the natural world (and I am not) then realize that the most draconian changes may be forced upon man. Where we can live and what crops we can grow is a perfect place to start.

Consider one of my homes: Galveston, Texas. Galveston is a tiny sliver of sand that rises off of the upper Texas coast. Galveston averages 6.6 feet in elevation. With sea levels expected to rise by as much as three feet by the year 2100, in large part due to climate change, coastal cities like Galveston face an unprecedented challenge this century. Is Galveston concerned? No. Galvestonians would rather debate low-income housing than worry about a threat that to them seems distant.

I doubt that Jamaicans are worried either. This issue has been obscured and the debate throttled. Yet climate change is real, and it impacts are looming. The change will occur with or without us; the only issue is degree. We may address the short-term impacts of bauxite mining (simple solution: no mining in Cockpit Country), while at the same time lose ground over time due to climate change. At risk are the land snails of Jamaica, the heritage of the Caribbean people, the shorebirds of Galveston, and we toads in the tureen.

For more images from our work in Jamaica on the Caribbean Birding Trail, check out our Pinterest board.

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