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How Climate Change Affects Pacific Northwest Butterflies

Dec. 6, 2011 | Northwest Public Radio
Courtney Flatt

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Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest are already feeling the effects of a warming planet. Washington State University entomologist David James says several species he photographed for his book, Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies, will likely be extinct in 10 to 15 years.

Many species that thrive in colder climates on mountaintops are already difficult to find.

“They’re probably the ones that, if we indeed have climate change and global warming they could be pushed off the tops of mountains because they need those colder climates to survive,” James says.

If it’s not cold enough, these species will die out, James says. In this way, his book will act as a history book for several extinct species.

James says butterflies are like canaries in coalmines. They are a strong predictor of environmental problems and loss of habitat because they are some of the species affected first.

Warmer temperatures also help some southern species migrate to the Pacific Northwest. A few decades ago the Sachem Skipper butterfly couldn’t be found in Washington. Now it can be seen in the Columbia River Gorge and up the Yakima River Valley as far as Ellensberg, Wash. James says.

“We’re likely to see that more in the future,” James says. “We’ve mentioned that in the book, species that aren’t in the area but should be watched for in the future.”

© 2011 Northwest Public Radio
climate change butterfly David James
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