Landscapes & Cycles is an excellent book, one of the very best of nearly forty books on climate science that I own and have studied. The book’s subtitle is “An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.

This is the most down to earth science book that one can imagine as it shows a scientist at work in his field, using the tools of the scientific method in a search for better explanations. Readers can learn a lot from this book’s 283 pages of text that includes 182 illustrations (graphs, pictures, maps, and diagrams). The text is documented by 999 source notes.

Jim Steele’s special fields of interest and expertise are biology, wildlife, and ecology. From 1983 to 2013 he was Director of the science field campus of San Francisco State University. The field campus is located at an elevation of 5000 feet (1524 meters) in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, 200 miles (320 km) northeast of San Francisco and 40 miles (64 km) northwest of Lake Tahoe.

The book is based on Jim Steele’s lifetime spent teaching students from elementary school through the university level about natural systems and wildlife habitats.

In the early 1990s Steele was engaged by the U.S. Forest Service to study the bird communities in high mountain meadows of the Tahoe National Forest. In 1998 he witnessed a sudden collapse of the bird population in a meadow in Carman Valley, California.

At first Steele suspected that global warming was the most likely cause. However, 100 years of local climate records showed that (1) the region was no warmer than in the 1900s, a century earlier; and (2) local maximum temperatures had decreased significantly since the 1930s.

Temperatures shown in this graph are the yearly average maximum and minimum temperatures at the USHCN Tahoe City weather station

The graph shows 110 years of temperature at the Tahoe City, California weather station that is part of the United States Historical Climate Network (USHCN). Tahoe City is located on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. It is the closest USHCN weather station to the mountain meadow in Carman Valley California where there was a sudden collapse of the bird population.

Steele states “like much of the United States, the average temperature for Tahoe City has never significantly exceeded the 1930s and 1940s. [Furthermore] local maximum temperatures had decreased significantly since the 1930s. [Emphasis in original text] Many other surrounding USHCN weather stations . . . exhibited the same pattern.”

Steele discovered that heavy logging in the Carman Valley region 100 years previously had caused a deterioration of the watershed that supported the bird population in the mountain meadow where birds had disappeared. To remediate the damaged watershed Steele worked with the US Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and a local restoration organization. Once the watershed was restored most species of birds rebounded immediately and in greater numbers than had been observed previously.

Steele told friends that the crash in bird population in the Sierra Nevada meadow had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with an abused watershed. Most of his friends celebrated the successful habitat restoration. However, a few accused him of letting global warming off the hook. When he responded that there had been no warming in the region he was called a denier and accused of helping Big Oil. He asked that those antagonists look at the temperature records for themselves, but they refused to do so.

This experience motivated Steele to investigate other claims that global warming was causing extinction of species. Among the species and their habitats he examined were butterflies, the Pika (a small rabbit-like rodent found in mountainous regions of the American west), frogs and toads, penguins in Antarctica; and polar bears and walruses in the Arctic.

In this book Steele examines not only wildlife and habitats but also climate and weather. The discussion includes phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña, extreme weather (tornadoes, droughts and flooding), and climate variability through thousands of years of climate and geologic history.

The reader learns that seventy-five percent of all tornadoes occur in the United States. This is due to the parallel north-south alignment of the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains that makes the Great Plains a funnel for cold dry arctic air that can move southward while warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico is drawn northward. When a cold front from the north encounters warm air advancing from the south, thunderstorms may occur that develop into tornadoes.

Steele’s view is that wildlife is not threatened with extinction by global climate change, and that climate is not changing any more than it ever has. The species examined have persisted and survived through thousands of years of variability in climate. Steele points rather to threats to wildlife from abuse of habitats through humans’ land use, as well as excessive fishing and hunting.

This is a book that can be enjoyed on several levels: as a description of human land uses that disturb wildlife habitats; as a clear and articulate presentation of important aspects of climate science; and as an examination of human nature displayed in the abuse and perversion of climate science and biological science.

The misuse of climate and biological science has been sometimes innocent and well meaning, and sometimes otherwise. Steele identifies widespread and deliberate manipulation of data to make observations fit the human-caused global warming hypothesis rather than testing to see if the hypothesis is consistent with observation.

In a particularly illuminating discussion, Steele examines what he calls hypothesis obsession syndrome (HOS). This is the propensity of some contemporary climate and biology scientists to see only human-caused global warming as the cause of extinction of wildlife, disregarding other possible causes as unworthy of investigation. Two examples illustrate how this happens. 

Edith’s checkerspot butterfly

In 1996 a biologist published a study entitled “Species and Climate Range.” The study claimed that global warming had caused the extermination of several colonies of the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly in southern California and that the survivors were likely moving northward and upward in elevation to cooler locations. This study made its author a celebrity in climate-change research.

Jim Steele investigated the checkerspot butterfly extinction claim. A renowned butterfly specialist commented that there was absolutely no evidence of butterfly migration northward or to higher elevations.

Steele found that other scientists had identified the cause of disappearance of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly in some locales as habitat degradation and loss due to the rapid urbanization of southern California during the 20th century. The butterflies had disappeared from Orange County California by the 1970s but reappeared in areas of nearby Riverside County and San Diego County and still further south in Baja California, Mexico.

Butterfly species had experienced and survived more extreme warming during the Holocene Optimum period 9000 to 5000 years ago when the earth’s average temperature was 3° F to 6 ° F higher than at present.

Controlled experiments demonstrated that higher temperatures enhance the survival of the butterfly.

When Steele undertook to replicate the study in question he asked its author to disclose the locations of her butterfly research sites. On the basis of her study, the author had become famous and highly praised in academia and in popular science journals. She refused to share the data or to amend her study or ask that it be retracted from the journal in which it had been published.

The pika 

Pikas are found in mountainous regions of the western United States. They are hamster-like animals, a cousin of rabbits, also known as the “whistling hare” and “boulder bunny.”

Environmental activists assert that the pika’s survival depends on achieving immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, Steele cites respectable sources indicating that there is a plethora of evidence that the pika is flourishing.

An activist scientist claimed that brief exposure to temperatures of 78 ° F or warmer can cause death of the pika. Another pika expert replied that it was false to say “. . . that pikas perish when ambient temperatures reach 78° F. They do not die at these temperatures; they retreat to the cool interstices of the talus.” The talus is a slope consisting of rock piles, beneath which temperatures are significantly lower.

An activist proponent of heat death of the pika had trapped pika and in three experiments had confined them at dawn to a large wire mesh cage. Each animal died around noon when air temperature reached 78° F. Steele comments that it was direct exposure to the sun, not the ambient air temperature that killed the pikas. When running free, at hot hours of the day pikas retreat to the shade of the talus slopes that are part of their habitat. Beneath the rocks there is dense, colder air from the previous night that has settled into the talus, creating a naturally cool environment during the heat of the day.

These few examples are just a small part of the richness of Jim Steele’s excellent book, a work that deserves wide circulation.


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4 Responses to LANDSCAPES & CYCLES

  1. Thomas Merrick says:

    Wonderful explanation of some complex issues. Pls. keep up the good work. There are too few of us that understand the complex issues that are raised. Tom

    • fgmarks says:

      Tom: There is reason for optimism, in the long run, regarding the climate debate. The truth always becomes apparent over time.

  2. Susan Johnson-Millis says:

    Excellent article, and I will buy Mr Steele’s book and spread the word. Hopefully you’ll give us some news of where he might have a live book tour event!

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