At the front lines of climate change

A photo of an estuaryEstuaries, the ecosystems that exist where rivers and oceans meet, are at the front lines of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal wetlands, increasing their salinity and causing a shift in vegetation communities. Air and water temperatures, precipitation patterns, and ocean chemistry are also changing. All of these processes likely add up to a loss many of the values these systems provide, including providing habitat for fish, migratory birds, and other species, filtering water, stabilizing shorelines, and buffering coastal communities from storm damage.

On November 18-19th, a group of researchers and managers got together in Newport, Oregon, to mull over what to do about this situation. We asked ourselves:  How can we best manage these sensitive ecosystems so that they continue to provide fish and wildlife habitat and other important values as the climate changes?

The question is a particularly tough one, because relatively simple physical changes in climate and water chemistry will create complex effects in biological systems. For example, we know that air temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest are likely to rise some 2-5°F over the next several decades and that we can expect on the order of 3-4 feet of sea-level rise globally by the end of the century (although the magnitude of sea-level rise remains much debated).  These changes are likely to affect factors that are critical to estuary function like water salinity, sediment deposition, and vegetation type, but we know relatively little about exactly how these cascading effects will play out on the ground. As a result, many managers feel that climate change projections are still too uncertain to inform management decisions

One of the conclusions from the group was that many of the conservation tools we already have will be useful in responding to climate change. For example, many estuaries can effectively migrate inland as sea levels rise. Where they are hemmed in by development, though, they are unable to shift and some of their function and value as wildlife habitat is almost certain to be lost, so protecting coastal lands from development through conservation easements and purchase is vitally important. We also discussed some creative strategies for managing estuaries and the riparian areas that feed them, such as reintroducing beavers into streams and rivers improve water storage on the landscape and help moderate water flows.

Many of these strategies are robust to uncertainty, in the sense that they are very likely to be beneficial even if we are wrong about the magnitude or effects of future changes in the climate. Developing more of these robust strategies will help keep conservationists from becoming paralyzed by the uncertainty inherent in climate prediction and modeling. In Oregon, the next step is to delve deeper into some of the solutions we identified and start thinking critically about what tools to use, where, and why. We’ll also be working to spread the word so that that general public is more aware of likely climate change impacts and our options for managing it.

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Sara O'Brien is the Private Lands Conservation Associate at Defenders of Wildlife. Sara’s work for Defenders focuses around biodiversity conservation on private lands. Her primary priority is to create and support non-regulatory tools that encourage private landowners to conserve and enhance wildlife habitat and manage their lands sustainably.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.