July 1st, 2019. The morning was bright as I hiked with my dad, my aunt and her family on the coast of Northern California — the so-called “Lost Coast.” The day was warm and only a few wisps of clouds were visible in the blue sky along the edge of the coast. The smell of salt filled my nostrils. The shushing sound of the powerful Pacific Ocean toiling against the rough, dark rocks and sandy shore joined with the soft whistle of the wind to create a soundtrack of white noise, punctuated by the seagulls’ harsh cries.
We arrived at the Punta Gorda Lighthouse, a lone figure standing along the wild west coast, not long after detouring around a rattlesnake sunning itself in the middle of the trail along the top of the beach.
Just past that lighthouse, lying out on the fine gray sand of the beach, were a colony of elephant seals. They didn’t appear to be the most graceful of creatures with their enormous stature, blubbery bodies and huge bulbous noses. And while I typically can identify most animals quickly, I was at first puzzled because I had never seen these creatures in person before. The Northern Elephant Seal makes its home off the coast of Mexico and Southern California, while its larger Southern cousin makes its home in the cold waters of Antarctica. The Northern Elephant Seal, a colony of which I found before me, can weigh over two tons and can easily crush a human. Growing up on the coast of Northern California and hiking there now, the only marine mammals I had ever encountered were sea lions, which are much smaller with sleeker bodies, longer flippers and cute, pointy noses. Yet, as I realized what I saw in front of me was in fact the Northern Elephant seal out of its natural habitat, I found myself drawn to these majestic creatures, despite the clownishness of their appearance.
With a demanding curiosity, I crept closer to them, keeping a large log between myself and the mostly slumbering giants. One individual seal close to me opened her eye, then closed it again, deeming me too small to be a threat. My family watched the seals from a safe distance away, warning me warily to stop being reckless. I waved away their concern as I circled cautiously around the colony. These giants can move quickly over land when they want to, their blubber rippling like water as they lumber forward. I was slower on the loose, dry sand, my shoes dragging no matter how lightly I tried to step. I watched in fascination from around the curve of a grassy hill as two males fought, their sharp teeth gouging into each other’s already-scarred flesh. I counted around 40 individual seals, in awe of their presence and large quantity.
What were they doing there, far away from where they were supposed to be? I remembered when a Great White Shark washed up on the beach and how it’s not uncommon to see sea lions, but I couldn’t recall ever hearing of elephant seals this far north. And when I had backpacked this same trail with my father and brother in the past around the same time of year, they certainly weren’t there.
Later that day, we talked to a park ranger who said they in fact had come farther north from their usual beaches and began showing up in Punta Gorda “around a year ago.”
While this statement may appear insignificant to some, its implications stayed with me. Later that summer while studying at St. Peter’s College at Oxford University for an abroad program, I did some research. The most helpful source I found on the subject was a book titled “Elephant Seals: Population Ecology, Behavior, and Physiology.” One map in it showed the locations of rookeries, or elephant seal breeding colonies, as of 1991 and their alleged historical locations. The historical rookeries extend south to Mexico and north past San Francisco, but not to Punta Gorda.
Within the 28 years between 1991 and 2019, the elephant seals migrated about 280 miles north of their historical northernmost rookery, about 10 miles a year.
But why was this so?
I guess the circumstances were right for me to be thinking about this question, as my study abroad program that summer focused on anthropogenic climate change. At some point, I made the connection that it is climate change that is affecting the patterns of these animals.
It’s well established that climate change is causing rising atmospheric temperatures. But oceans absorb a lot of the heat that would otherwise be absorbed by the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency shows a recent rise in ocean heat content above the 1971-2000 average, which is consistent across different measurement sources.
There is evidence that distributions of marine mammals are changing as climate changes. It is possible that as ocean temperatures rise, the elephant seals are moving farther north to waters that are more comfortable or which provide better access to food sources.
And while this one instance may serve as a key indicator of the significance of climate change, its impact on living organisms is not confined to the oceans, nor is it confined to animals. Plant distributions can also be affected by climate change as temperatures and precipitation levels change.
Even the smallest of creatures can be affected by temperature changes, as shown by one of the EPA’s climate change indicators, Lyme disease. Occurrences of Lyme disease have been rising steadily since the 1990s. Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which can be carried in a certain species of tick called a deer tick. Ticks infected with this bacteria, when biting a human or animal, can transmit Lyme disease. The illness causes skin rash, fatigue and joint pain; if left untreated, the illness can cause Lyme arthritis and nervous system complications. Deer ticks are active when temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit and prefer areas with 85% humidity. Global warming is expanding the range of deer ticks, increasing the prevalence of health hazards in humans and animals by spreading Lyme disease to new populations and areas.
This occurrence has important implications for the state of Michigan. In July 2020, it became clear that Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent in Northern Michigan and other parts of the state.
Unlike humans, who regulate the environment to survive, animals and plants and even bacteria rely upon climate to provide hospitable conditions. If the environment in which they can live expands, so will their distribution patterns, and if the environment is no longer hospitable, they will move to a place that is hospitable. As shown by the elephant seals I encountered a year and a half ago, the results of climate change are happening right before our eyes.
Climate change does not only affect the climate; it has the potential to affect species of animals and plants and as a result, the distributions of diseases like Lyme disease. By paying attention to such signs and not dismissing them as unexplained coincidences, we acknowledge the impact that we as humans have on the natural environment.
When I think of the far-reaching consequences of anthropogenic climate change, I think of the time I saw the elephant seals. The changes that are occurring are far more than changes in the weather — they affect the ecology of the places we live. And regardless of what we consider ourselves to be, we are animals, too. We can brace ourselves for the impact of climate change by recognizing when our actions have affected the environment, and respond adequately by anticipating what other consequences climate change may have.
Our disconnection from the environment ends when we encounter animals where they’re not supposed to be, when the plants that grew in a place before don’t grow there as well anymore because of drought, when a disease spreads to a new region. We are not as separate from the environment as we may think, and the consequences are apparent in strange, seemingly innocuous occurrences — like the elephant seals on the beach.
After lunch on the hill above the elephant seals, we headed back the way we had come, the lighthouse being the predetermined turning-back point of our hike. It was almost as if, without knowing it, we had come all this way just to see the elephant seals: an anomaly of climate change that may become a norm in the years to come.
Signs like these are a lighthouse, guiding our ship through treacherous waters so that we don’t hit the sharp rocks of the coast and sink. It is our decision whether to pay attention to them or not.