Roots and Shoots: Climate Change in Philipstown, Part 2

By Pamela Doan

As a follow-up to last week’s Roots and Shoots column, here’s more about the information that was presented at the Nov. 25 panel discussion Climate Change and the Hudson River. Co-hosted by the Desmond-Fish Library and the Garrison Union Free School, the panel included Dr. Radley Horton of the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University; Eric Lind, director of Constitution Marsh Audubon Center; Andrew Revkin, journalist, professor and writer of the DotEarth blog on The New York Times website; Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper; and Dr. Sacha Spector, director of conservation science with Scenic Hudson. Library Trustee Fred Osborn facilitated.

Eric Lind brought the issues of global warming home with real life examples of the changes he’s seen around Constitution Marsh and Philipstown. Tidal wetlands on the Hudson River, like Constitution Marsh, are important habitats that sustain fish spawning and bird breeding; they’re some of the most productive areas in the river. These wetlands are a delicate balance for life that can’t survive in a higher river.

Robins have moved farther north in winter and have been seen in Philipstown due to warming temperatures.

Robins have moved farther north in winter and have been seen in Philipstown due to warming temperatures.

Lind used pickerelweed as an example. It’s an aquatic plant with beautiful flowers currently found in the marsh. Some birds eat its seeds. It’s an important part of the ecosystem of the marsh and other wetlands. It can only grow to a certain height, though, and if the water level continues increasing, it won’t make it.

Spector described how some wetland flora and fauna will be able to migrate inland and upslope, but their success all depends on how fast the river rises and how much time they have to move. Many sections of the Hudson Highlands have steep slopes that will block that migration, too. If climate change continues at its current rate, Constitution Marsh will no longer be a tidal wetland by the end of this century, maybe sooner.

Lind called birds “an umbrella species that acts like a barometer.” Basically, if birds are doing well, then everything else in the habitat is doing well. He used data showing shifts in birds’ patterns, like seeing robins during winter in Philipstown.

For more than 100 years people all over the Americas have been counting birds and submitting the data to the Audubon Society. (The Christmas Bird Count is starting soon.) This data shows that birds averaged about 250 miles to the north in the past 40 to 50 years. For a bird, that’s a long distance, and with the specific needs that some birds have for breeding, feeding and nesting, it’s a big question if their requirements for survival can be met in the radius that they have to move when their habitats are altered by the warming climate.

Gallay shared an organizer’s perspective, starting off with a phrase that he repeated a few times, “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” referring to Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Sloop, I believe. Gallay mentioned recent victories for the river, including the recent halting of the desalination plant in Rockland County, as examples of the power of people doing something about the problems we face.

Since its beginning in the 1960s, Riverkeeper has achieved incredible success in cleaning up and ending pollution in the river. As a sign of the growing awareness about global warming, the Climate March in New York City last September drew a diverse group of more than 300,000 protesters, one of the largest gatherings in recent years.

All the participants emphasized that personal actions matter. Lind recommended planting berry bushes in the yard to feed migrating birds and encouraged more community forums for discussion about climate change as two of his top priorities. Spector said: “I want to end carbon pollution in my lifetime; that has to be our goal. The cars we drive, putting solar panels on the roof, it all matters.”

Where are we now? Horton summarized the situation succinctly: “The threshold is 2 degrees of warming as agreed upon globally. Once we get beyond that, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen. All bets are off. We need to drastically reduce our emissions. At our current rate, we’ll hit the 2 degrees of warming threshold within 25 years. The lever needs to be turned now and it needs to be turned dramatically.”

For more information and to get involved, check the websites for Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, Constitution Marsh and the DotEarth blog on

Photo by Jonathan Oleyar, courtesy National Audubon Society

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