Archive | Climate Change

The Red Cheeked Salamander

The Incredible Shrinking Salamander: Is Climate Change Behind the Decline?

The effects of climate change on wildlife and habitats are as varied as they are widespread: from loss of sea ice in the Arctic to die-offs of coral reefs in the tropics, from floods and wildfires to increased spread of disease and changing food availability.  Although some of the effects are dramatic and obvious, others may be much more subtle, but still hold important implications for conservation. Case in point: new research suggests that warmer and drier conditions may be shrinking salamanders in the southern Appalachians, one of the world’s hotspots of amphibian diversity.

The Red Cheeked Salamander

The results come from an investigation of salamander specimens collected over a 55-year period from sites ranging from Maryland to Tennessee. From 2011-2012, researchers caught and measured nearly 1200 salamanders and compared the results to a Smithsonian collection of over 8000 preserved specimens caught at the same sites dating back to 1957. Of the 15 species they compared, six showed a “significant reduction in body size,” and only one had an increase in body size.

By overlaying geographic and climate data, the scientists also found that the largest reductions in body size occurred at more southerly sites that had gotten warmer and drier over the 55-year period. These findings were augmented by biophysical modeling that showed that warmer temperatures increased the metabolisms of the “cold-blooded,” or ectothermic, salamanders by 7 to 8%. The animals were apparently not able to consume enough food to make up for their bodies’ increased activity, and thus they grew to a smaller maximum size. Size is correlated with a number of important ecological and behavioral characteristics, like how many eggs they lay in a season and how well they escape being eaten. These smaller body sizes may put the animals at increased risk of diminished reproductive success and reduce their ability to avoid predators.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

Last summer, Defenders released a report, “Harnessing Nature: The Ecosystem Approach to Climate Change Preparedness,” to demonstrate the potential for ecosystem-based approaches – restored wetlands, protected habitats, and resilient forests – to help protect communities and infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe floods, droughts and heat waves that we expect a changing climate to bring. Little did we know that the nation would soon be faced with one of the costliest weather disasters in our nation’s history, a massive and deadly superstorm that demonstrated unequivocally that climate change is here, and it is happening now.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama recognized the need for massive public investment in order to help rebuild one of the nation’s most populous regions, as well as the need to coordinate these investments in order to expedite recovery, avoid duplication of effort, and rebuild with an eye to withstanding challenges that climate change is sure to bring down the road. Thus, the Administration convened the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which today released a Strategy “to serve as a model for communities across the nation facing greater risks from extreme weather and to continue helping the Sandy-affected region rebuild.” Defenders is pleased to see that among the report’s recommendations are several that highlight the invaluable role played by our natural capital during Sandy itself, and point to a more widespread use of this “green infrastructure” to enhance resilience to future climate challenges.

In building its case, the Strategy highlights the role that a restored oyster reef in Pamlico Sound played in reducing flooding at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It could have just as easily discussed how communities in New York and New Jersey with intact dune systems fared far better than those that did not, or how restoration of wetlands and living shorelines to absorb storm waters and reduce wave action is an integral part of New York City’s resilience plan.

The Task Force lays out its “Green Infrastructure” strategies in Recommendations 19- 22:

Consider green infrastructure options in all Sandy infrastructure investments. Toward this end, the Task Force has developed Guidelines for incorporation of ecosystem services into projects:

“(1) provision of habitat (coastal, inter-coastal, inland)

(2) landscape conservation for the tourism, recreation, and aesthetic values on which economies depend

(3) watershed protection for clean drinking water and improved flood management

(4) threatened and endangered species conservation and restoration

(5) other associated ecosystem services from which people derive benefits (e.g., aquaculture and recreational and commercial fishing).”

Improve the understanding and decision-making tools for green infrastructure through projects funded by the Sandy Supplemental. Agencies are developing monitoring, mapping, remote sensing, valuation tools, and design protocols to better understand and apply the full range of benefits that natural solutions can provide.

Create opportunities for innovations in green infrastructure technology and design using Sandy funding, particularly in vulnerable communities. The Sandy supplemental was unprecedented in its support for natural resilience solutions, with funding available for protective measures like restoration of sand dunes and wetlands, water-absorbing measures like green roofs and permeable pavement, as well as ecosystem restoration at parks, refuges and Tribal lands in the region.

Develop a consistent approach to valuing the benefits of green approaches to infrastructure development and develop tools, data, and best practices to advance the broad integration of green infrastructure. The agencies are in the process of developing tools for encouraging the broader adoption of green infrastructure.

As we showed in “Harnessing Nature,” Natural solutions have proven value in helping to protect people and communities from some of the challenges that climate change will bring, like storms and floods, droughts and wildfires, and deadly heat waves. With the release of the Hurricane Sandy Task Force recommendations, hopefully the region – and the nation – will embark on a path to their broader adoption.

Brown Pelican, USFWS

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, Florida, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.

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Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

As long time followers know, Defenders has been working hard to shape National Forest conservation policy for decades, including non-stop campaigning for the last several years to make sure new forest planning regulations conserve and recover forest dependent wildlife.  To ensure that these new rules translate into real on-the-ground protections for wildlife and forest ecosystems, Defenders kicked off our Forests for Wildlife Initiative.  The goal of the initiative is to transform how the Forest Service manages forests for wildlife, and to protect and restore national forest landscapes through on-the-ground conservation projects and actions.

The Forests for Wildlife Initiative takes us from the policymaking world of Washington D.C., to the majestic landscapes of Alaska and California.  Last year, I was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to a Federal Advisory Committee charged with overseeing implementation of the new planning rule.  One of the committee’s first tasks was to work with the Forest Service to craft policy “directives” that will guide how the new regulation is interpreted and applied to individual national forests.  Our comments on the draft directives can be found here.  The complex forest policy world is like an onion trapped in a spider’s web.  Numerous statutes govern the management of National Forests, including the National Forest Management Act, as well as associated federal rules and regulations.  Keep peeling and one finally gets down to the highly technical internal agency policies that tell forest managers how to navigate and implement all of the various rules and regulations.  The directives tell managers “how” to do the “what”— the requirements that are spelled out in the regulations.  Good planning directives provide strong, clear direction to managers on how to identify, conserve and monitor species of conservation concern; account for ecosystem services; or manage in the face of climate change.  Poor directives can lead to inconsistent conservation decisions that could lessen protections and raise risks for forests and wildlife.

The current draft directives need some work to provide forest managers a clear path to effectively conserving forest integrity and wildlife.  The advisory committee will be working with the Forest Service all summer to make recommendations on how to improve them.  Stay tuned for more updates and campaign reports from the Forests for Wildlife Initiative.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

For much of the past two years, Defenders has been actively engaged in the Forest Service’s development of a new rule to guide planning within the National Forest System. We submitted extensive comments on last year’s proposed rule, but that was hardly the end of our involvement.  The Forest Service is now in the process of drafting “directives” to guide the implementation of the 2012 planning rule. As with the rule itself, we have quite a few suggestions for making it stronger, better and more clear (our full comments on the directives can be found here). This week’s blog installment focuses on incorporation of climate change.

The Forest Service has been a leader in understanding, researching, and developing policy mechanisms to deal with the impacts of climate change.  The planning rule itself broke new ground in directing forests to take into account the effects of climate change on ecosystem integrity and to incorporate climate change resilience into forest planning. We had expected, therefore, that the Directives would build on that track record and provide forest managers with clear direction on how to integrate assessment and response to climate change impacts into all phases of forest planning.  Unfortunately, the Directives don’t do much more than repeat some of the language from the planning rule itself.

Virtually absent from the directives is any clear description of the particular exposure factors associated with climate change, such as higher mean temperatures, hotter high temperatures, reduction in frost-free days, changing proportions of precipitation falling as rain vs. snow,  occurrences of extreme precipitation events, alterations in snowpack, and lengthier periods of drought (to name a few). Many species and habitats will be sensitive to one or more of these specific types of exposures, but there is no guidance on how select, evaluate or rank these. Climate-related stressors will also interact with other stressors (for instance, warmer winters may facilitate spread of invasive or noxious species that are held in check by winter die-off). Societal responses to climate change will also likely compound stresses to species and ecosystems (some examples include increased water withdrawals from stream systems in response to drought and heat, and habitat modification to reduce fire risk at the wildland-urban interface). Nowhere do the directives recommend how to find, evaluate, and use this information in forest planning.

The directives also fail to give forest managers a path for selecting appropriate responses. This is a pretty glaring omission, given that the Forest Service has already published extensive resources on various adaptation response options: resistance, resilience, response, and re-alignment. We had hoped that the directives would provide managers with a means to choose among these responses and select plan components to achieve those aims, but it does not do so.

Even worse, the directives at times seem to give managers an easy way out of doing the hard thinking about responding to climate change. For instance, the “Ecosystem Integrity” section of the assessment language says, “Where information is available, the responsible official should consider the influence of climate change. . .” (emphasis added). Later, the directives use climate change as an example of “factors outside of the agency’s control.” We are concerned that conditional language like this is tantamount to allowing planners an excuse to avoid the sometimes difficult task of finding and evaluating climate change information that may be applicable to the situation at hand. We see a high potential for this kind of omission to occur, given that the directives have provided so little guidance on where to find climate change information and how to incorporate it into assessment.

Defenders has submitted comments to the Forest Service pointing out these and other flaws in the directives, which will make it difficult for forest planners to realize the planning rule’s potential benefits to biodiversity over time. Stay tuned to find out if they take our recommendations into account.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has recently been in the news as it relates to climate change, as reports surfaced that the administration is finalizing long-awaited NEPA climate change guidance (you can find the draft guidance here), outraging Senate Republicans who fear the guidance is an attempt to regulate greenhouse gases.

NEPA is exactly the right context for federal agencies to be analyzing how their proposed actions affect and are affected by climate change. Federal actions, both directly and indirectly, can and do lead to the release of greenhouse gases. In addition – and importantly, since this seems to be missing from most of the debate surrounding NEPA and climate change – federal actions and projects permitted by federal agencies can be greatly affected by climate change, and affect the surrounding environment in combination with climate change. These effects need to be understood to make sound decisions and investments of federal tax dollars.

Contrary to the fears of NEPA as a regulatory force, NEPA’s purpose is not to force and prevent a particular action or outcome. Rather, its purpose is to “insure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken” and “to help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences, and take actions that protect, restore, and enhance the environment.” As a result of agencies taking a “hard look at the environmental consequences” of their proposed actions, they can develop appropriate alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce impacts on the environment. NEPA is a critical planning tool to improve agency decision making.

The Obama administration issued draft guidance to federal agencies in 2010 on “Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions” under NEPA. The draft guidance lacked clarity on accounting for emissions and for understanding climate change impacts on projects and the affected environment, and it excluded federal land management decisions from the guidance altogether – a glaring omission given how sensitive land management and related natural resources are to climate change impacts. It is the finalization of this guidance that is garnering recent attention.

To assist the administration in addressing these climate impacts in the implementation of NEPA, Defenders of Wildlife recently sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is the lead office in charge of NEPA. In our letter we recommend the final guidance address the following issues:

  • Purpose and Need: the purpose and need (See NEPA implementing regulations at 40 CFR §1502.13), which should be examined to determine if they are robust in a changing climate. For instance, a project designed to protect a coastal community from storm surge will not be responding to the right “need” if it only accounts for historic sea and surge levels.
  • Environmental assessments and Findings of No Significant Impacts: Determining “significance” is a critical component of NEPA analysis, and requires agencies to look at cumulative impacts. Guidance needs to be provided for understanding how to integrate climate change impacts into cumulative impacts analysis.
  • Analysis timeframe and geographic scope: The timeframe of analysis is relevant to how far into the future to analyze “reasonably foreseeable future actions” under Cumulative Impacts (§1508.7) and definition of “Significance,” which explicitly includes both long and short term effects (§1508.27). The analysis timeframe should be long enough to cover the period over which the project will potentially be affected by and interact with climate change effects. Similarly, the geographic scope of the analysis, as referred to under Affected Environment (§1502.45) and Context (§1508.27), should be large enough to account for potential range shifts in affected species and habitats, potential changes throughout an entire watershed, and similar landscape level effects that would affect the project and project impacts.
  • Alternatives: As part of the process of development of alternatives to the proposed action (§1502.14), the agency should consider whether climate change may impact the ability of each alternative to meet the purpose and need. This should include an assessment of the vulnerability of the various project alternatives to relevant climate change impacts. Where possible, agencies should incorporate into alternatives design elements that reduce the likelihood or severity of climate change impacts. Alternatives that fail to meet the purpose and need due to projected future climate change effects should be eliminated, and this should be noted in the discussion.
  • Affected Environment: As part of the EIS process, the agency discusses the Affected Environment (§1502.15), laying out which aspects of the natural environment (water, air, biodiversity, soils, aesthetics), built environment, human health, and sustainability of resources might be affected by the alternatives. As this section is the basis for comparisons of environmental consequences, it is critical that this section cover the full range of elements that could face effects, including cumulative effects from climate change. The agency should ensure that the environmental resources being considered includes the full suite of elements that could face effects from the project, and integrate climate change threats into the discussion of each element. Climate change is expected to worsen over time, and these changing effects on ecosystems should be incorporated into the Affected Environment and no action alternative sections of an EIS.
  • Environmental Consequences: At the heart of the analyses in an environmental impact statement is the Environmental Consequences section (§1502.16), which compares “The environmental effects of alternatives, including the proposed action” (§1502.16d) on various elements of the affected environment that were defined previously. Full incorporation of climate change into this analysis is warranted by the fact that the effects of climate change constitute a cumulative impact of “past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions” (§1508.7) that release greenhouse gases. We recommend that guidance should be provided that requires each EIS, in its analysis of the alternatives’ impacts on each aspect of the affected environment, include a discussion of the effects to that resource from climate change, and the extent to which the impacts of the alternative will be exacerbated by climate change impacts, and its interaction with other threats, stressors, and cumulative impacts.
  • Mitigation: Mitigation as defined by NEPA, includes actions to avoid impacts; minimize impacts; rectify impacts; reduce or eliminate impacts; and compensate for impacts (§1508.20). The draft guidance broadly states that both emissions reductions and adaptive responses are included here, but provides very little detail as to how to proceed:   “The agency should identity alternative actions that are both adapted to anticipated climate change impacts and mitigate the GHG emissions that cause climate change.” More guidance should be provided to agencies, particularly outlining steps agencies can take to reduce the combined effects of the proposed action and climate impacts on the affected environment.
  • Monitoring: An important aspect of successful mitigation is a monitoring strategy to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation measures (§1505.2c). We recommend that the guidance should be strengthened to stipulate that the monitoring plan should be implemented (not just considered), and should focus on indicators relevant to both the implementation of adaptation strategies and the effects of climate change and other threats. Monitoring is particularly critical where uncertainties regarding climate change impacts or interacting effects have been identified. This plan should articulate steps to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, and a means of identifying and addressing problems that are identified through monitoring.

Climate change is already impacting federal actions across the country and across agencies, not to mention wildlife and ecosystems. Integrating climate change analysis into federal agency NEPA analysis and decision making is one of the most important steps the federal government can take to account for its contribution to global warming, and importantly, to account for and mitigate the effects of climate change on agency actions and the environment. The administration needs to take the bold step of finalizing its guidance to agencies for accomplishing this. The sooner guidance is issued, the sooner the federal government can help the nation become better prepared to address climate impacts.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, NEPA, Public Lands0 Comments

A National Plan for Conserving Wildlife in a Changing World

Today the Obama administration released the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. This ground-breaking strategy is the first national-level plan for addressing climate impacts on wildlife and ecosystems, and the first national-level climate plan developed by multiple levels of government including input from federal, state, and tribal agencies and organizations. The Strategy has been a core part of Defenders’ climate adaptation policy platform and we have been heavily engaged throughout the process.

The Strategy is unique in its strong language describing the urgent need for working together to build resilience into our natural systems to better withstand the impacts of climate change – language so compelling I’m posting the preface here:

Our climate is changing, and these changes are already impacting the nation’s valuable natural resources and the people, communities, and economies that depend on them. These impacts are expected to increase with continued changes in the planet’s climate system, putting many of the nation’s valuable natural resources at risk. Action is needed now to reduce these impacts (including reducing the drivers of climate change) and help sustain the natural resources and services the nation depends on.

The observed changes in climate have been attributed to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which have set in motion a series of changes in the planet’s climate system. Far greater changes are inevitable not only because emissions will continue, but also because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth’s climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is currently more likely, the planet’s average temperature is projected to rise by 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea level rise, and changing ocean conditions including increased acidification.

Safeguarding our valuable living resources in a changing climate for current and future generations is a serious and urgent problem. Addressing the problem requires action now to understand current impacts, assess future risks, and prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. This National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (hereafter Strategy) is a call to action–a framework for effective steps that can be taken, or at least initiated, over the next five to ten years in the context of the changes to our climate that are already occurring, and those that are projected by the end of the century. It is designed to be a key part of the nation’s larger response to a changing climate, and to guide responsible actions by natural resource managers, conservation partners, and other decision makers at all levels. The Strategy was produced by federal, state, and tribal representatives and has been coordinated with a variety of other climate change adaptation efforts at national, state, and tribal levels.

The overarching goal of the Strategy is a simple one: to inspire, enable, and increase meaningful action that helps safeguard the nation’s natural resources in a changing climate. Admittedly, the task ahead is a daunting one, especially if the world fails to make serious efforts to reduce emissions of GHGs. But we can make a difference. To do that, we must begin now to prepare for a future unlike the recent past.

I couldn’t agree more. And beginning now means establishing a clear plan and governance structure to ensure the Strategy is actually implemented. The biggest strength of the Strategy is that it brought together 23 federal, state, and tribal partners onto the steering committee and involved many others. That is also its greatest weakness. The final Strategy does not prescribe any particular action to any particular actor – it couldn’t; no partner had the authority to tell another what to do. But that leaves accountability for the achievement of the Strategy’s goals very tenuous. Two core solutions to ensure the Strategy doesn’t sit on a shelf (or in a hard drive) are to create a similar governing body as the one established to develop the plan, and require annual reporting of progress made implementing the plan.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Hurricane Sandy- Adapting to Climate Reality, Recovering Stronger

When Superstorm Sandy swept ashore in late October, it left an almost unimaginable level of damage: thousands of residents still displaced, entire communities destroyed, and an economic toll that promises to make Sandy one of the costliest natural disasters in history. But it also swept away our illusions that we can carry on with business as usual in a changing climate.

Sandy exposed incredible vulnerabilities to coastal storms and floods in the region. While the storm was unprecedented, the effects of climate change, namely higher sea levels and larger storms, mean that we can no longer operate as if a recurrence is only a remote possibility.  It’s clear that we cannot simply rebuild; we must also rethink the way we approach recovery efforts, and begin to prepare for future extreme weather events and sea level rise by rebuilding in a way that reduces vulnerabilities to future damage.

Defenders of Wildlife has argued that in many cases, this will require restoring and enhancing natural ecosystems that provide flood control and storm surge attenuation while providing other benefits including clean water, wildlife habitat, and economic and recreational opportunities.  Our publication “Harnessing Nature,” published earlier this year, describes several of these projects and the benefits they can provide.

After a disaster of Sandy’s magnitude, the need for federal assistance to help the region recover could not be more apparent and urgent.  The Obama administration submitted an emergency supplemental request to Congress to address response and recovery that takes this exact approach.  The Senate followed suit and included provisions that ensure recovery efforts mitigate future disaster risks.

The Senate emergency supplemental appropriations bill shows tremendous foresight in its recognition of the role that natural floodplains, coastal wetlands, dunes, natural shorelines and other ecosystem-based measures can play in protecting communities from weather-related disasters.  Defenders of Wildlife specifically support the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Restores national wildlife refuges: The bill provides $78 million for repairs and restoration at affected national wildlife refuges. Thirty-five refuges were closed following the storm and some remain closed. The overall damage to refuges was $78 million – the equivalent of 16% of the System’s overall annual budget – but it would have been much worse had it not been for the natural protection provided by refuge wetlands and dunes.
  • Funds projects to increase the resilience of coastal habitat and assist state and tribal natural resource restoration programs: Through Department of the Interior programs, the bill provides $150 million to “increase the resiliency and capacity of coastal habitat and infrastructure to withstand future storms and reduce the amount of damage caused by such storms; protect natural and cultural values; and assist State, tribal and local governments.” The Department includes many programs that it can deploy to accomplish this important goal through the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other programs.  
  • Funds coastal and estuarine habitat restoration and protection to help buffer communities from storms and recover fisheries- and coastal habitat-based economies: The bill provides $150 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “to evaluate, stabilize and restore coastal ecosystems affected by Hurricane Sandy.” NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Habitat Conservation has a long track record of success restoring coastal and marine habitat and fisheries, including many large-scale collaborative restoration projects including the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.  The bill also provides $47 million for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) to “support State and local restoration in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  CELCP provides states and local governments matching funds to purchase (fee title or easements) significant coastal and estuarine lands.  This protection ensures important natural areas continue to provide flood and storm protection benefits to communities in addition to their other ecological, recreational, and economic values.
  • Restores and protects storm-abating wetlands on private lands: The bill provides $125 million to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection Program.  This program provides funding to remove debris from stream channels, stabilize stream banks and restore damaged uplands stripped of protective vegetative cover.  The program also funds floodplain easements for “restoring, protecting, maintaining, and enhancing the functions and values of floodplains, including associated wetlands and riparian areas… These easements also help conserve fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention, and ground water recharge, as well as safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and erosion.”
  • Funds planning for and construction of flood-reducing projects that support the long-term sustainability of coastal ecosystems: The bill provides $2.9 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers to “reduce future flood risk in ways that will support the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and communities and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events in areas…affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  In addition, the bill requires that “efforts using these funds shall incorporate current science and engineering standards in constructing previously authorized Corps projects designed to reduce flood and storm damage risks and modifying existing Corps projects that do not meet these standards, with such modifications as the Secretary determines are necessary to incorporate these standards or to meet the goal of providing sustainable reduction to flooding and storm damage risks.” This important provision requires the Army Corps to reevaluate previously authorized projects in light of Hurricane Sandy and other recent extreme weather events, as well as current scientific projections of future climate-related risks, to ensure projects remain viable and sustainable under changing conditions.  The bill also provides up to $20 million to the Army Corps to support interagency planning with State, local, and Tribal officials “to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations, including innovative approaches to promote the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystems and communities to reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events.”
  • Requires federal agencies to plan for future risks of increased extreme weather events and sea level rise in all recovery efforts: General provisions that apply to the whole bill require agencies to be forward thinking to assess future changes in risks and vulnerabilities of recovery projects to extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.  Agencies shall “inform plans for response, recovery, and rebuilding to reduce vulnerabilities from and build long-term resiliency to future extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. In carrying out activities funded by this title that involve repairing, rebuilding, or restoring infrastructure and restoring land, project sponsors shall consider, where appropriate, the increased risks and vulnerabilities associated with future extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding.”  The bill also encourages the development of better information to base these decisions on, allowing funds to be available “to develop… regional projections and assessments of future risks and vulnerabilities to extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding that may be used for the planning…, and to encourage coordination and facilitate long-term community resiliency.


However, the following provisions limit environmental review and public participation, which may lead to poor planning and communities more vulnerable to disaster risks and other concerns. Some even lift environmental review nationwide. We strongly oppose the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Authorizes all pending Army Corps flood protection projects nationwide regardless of urgency, need, or status of environmental and other reviews: The bill authorizes any Army Corps flood protection project that is under study (i.e. any project throughout the nation that was begun before Hurricane Sandy) provided that the Corps demonstrates the project is cost-effective.  Notwithstanding the important provisions on using current science and planning for future risks that also apply to this funding; this provision approves any projects currently under study with the Corps.  Moreover this provision will apply nationwide, authorizing a bevy of projects notwithstanding their compliance with the Water Resources Development Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of these projects involve large commitments of funding and infrastructure that could have significant impacts to waterways, wetlands, habitat and wildlife. Proper evaluation of impacts to the environment and endangered and threatened species is necessary to prevent unintended environmental consequences. This blanket authorization is damaging and unnecessary and should be revised.
  • Unnecessarily creates new “streamlining” authorities: The bill authorizes the President to establish “streamlined” procedures to expedite providing disaster assistance.  The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act already include emergency provisions that allow for expedited reviews and changes in procedures to protect human health and safety in response to disasters and emergencies. In fact, provisions of these laws were used successfully during the recent BP Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to being simply unnecessary, these streamlining provisions are problematic, first in their lack of specificity in what exactly they authorize, and secondly in creating a deeply concerning precedent for circumventing our nation’s most important environmental and other public interest laws. These sections should be stricken.

This essential funding will provide much needed relief to victims of the devastating hurricane.  By retaining the forward-thinking provisions we highlight, and by striking the provisions waiving public interest requirements, the bill will not just help recover the region from this horrible storm, but will also reduce the region’s vulnerabilities to future extreme events, sea level rise and coastal flooding and the economic costs associated with these issues. 

Posted in Climate Change3 Comments

Climate Change and Extinctions at the Edge

Guest co-author:  Robert K. Robbins, Curator of Lepidoptera in the Department of Entomology, Smithsonian Institution.

Climate and land use changes are considered the main threats to the survival and persistence of species in their natural habitat.  As mentioned in a previous post, some species will adjust to changes in climate and shift their range, or modify their phenology to persist under significantly altered conditions.  Others, however, will go the way of the Dodo and Carolina Parakeet, forever gone except in paintings and museums.  Preventing this dire consequence of climate change has been the focus of many efforts in the conservation community.

A lesser known and more subtle consequence of climate change is that local colonies at the southern edge of a North American species’ distribution may become extirpated as temperatures rise.  A likely example was recently published.  The Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus) is a small butterfly (size of your thumbnail) that is recognized by a series of conspicuous coral-red spots on their wings.  It occurs widely in North America and is a common summer visitor at the flowers of Orange Milkweed.  Colonies of this species were recently discovered in south-central New Mexico (Sacramento Mountains) at the northeastern edge of the Sky Islands region.  They are at the southern edge of the Coral Hairstreak’s distribution, geographically isolated from the rest of the species.  These Sacramento Mountain Coral Hairstreaks have evolved distinct traits, for which reason they were described as a new subspecies in 2010.  This subspecies is precariously restricted to only two mountaintops, where it is adapted to local conditions.  As New Mexican Dick Holland, the scientist who authored the paper describing these butterflies, wrote, “a very tiny increase in global temperature shall push this taxon into thin air, and give it no place to live.”

One might wonder “so what if a local colony of an otherwise common species disappears?”  Well, other than the obvious loss of local diversity – which is recognized by the Endangered Species Act when it allows the listing of subspecies – extirpated populations at the edge of their distributions may be biologically more significant than is apparent at first thought.  The late Ernst Mayr, a noted evolutionary biologist, proposed the “founder effect” more than half a century ago.  It basically states that colonies at the periphery have the capacity to evolve rapidly when they become isolated.  These isolates are likely to go extinct eventually (think of the amplified extinction rate of birds on small peripheral islands), but occasionally, an isolated population will evolve new, evolutionarily significant, adaptations.  A classic example of the founder effect might be the marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands – they evolved major adaptations to the marine environment, unlike iguanas in other parts of the world.  Regardless of occasional academic disagreements with Mayr’s proposal, significant novel traits can evolve in colonies at the periphery.

So, when distinct isolated colonies of species at the southern edge of their distribution – such as the Sky Island subspecies of the Coral Hairstreak – go extinct as a consequence of climate change, the detrimental effect will be the loss of essential combinations from the “genetic toolbox” that species use to survive in an ever-changing world.  More importantly, though, a potential source of major novel “founder effect” adaptations – the kinds of changes on which evolutionary revolutions are based – is also being snuffed out.

So, when you wonder “so what if a local colony of an otherwise common species disappears?” the reasons that it matters may be subtle, but the evolutionary consequences may be oh so pernicious.

Posted in Climate Change2 Comments

Blackwater Map

Wildlife Refuges on Deck for Land Aquisition Funding Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise

There are over 150 national wildlife refuges located in coastal areas, yet the Refuge System has not adequately incorporated projections of sea level rise or other climate impacts into land acquisition planning.  Thus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not be maximizing the effectiveness of its conservation investments if it is making fee-title acquisitions or purchasing long-term easements on lands that are going to be underwater within a few decades.

To get a better picture of the situation, we used the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) to assess the threat to the lands within both the acquired and approved boundaries of eight coastal refuges that have been assigned a high funding priority for land acquisitions in the coming year.

We found that sea-level rise impact will not be felt equally among coastal refuges. Great White Heron NWR, in the Florida Keys, is the highest ranked refuge for land protection funding for FY 2013 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, yet it is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Two of the refuges we assessed, Great White Heron and Blackwater, face potential net loss of over 40% of refuge lands by 2075, if sea level rises by one meter over the course of the century. On the other hand, four of the refuges have less than 5% of their land area vulnerable. Some refuges, like Blackwater, will face inundation but have newly created wetlands nearby, where the refuge could potentially expand to. Others, like Laguna Atascosa NWR, will face wetlands loss that will not be readily replaced with new areas of marsh. And refuges whose land area consists mainly of low-lying islands, like in the Florida Keys, may run out of land entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fish and Wildlife Service urgently needs to better understand and incorporate climate change and sea level rise implications into its land acquisition planning to avoid investments that will ultimately be literally under water.

Our summary report with policy recommendations is available here.

The complete report is available here.

Posted in Climate Change, National Wildlife Refuges1 Comment

arctic sea ice

So Long Sea Ice

Arctic sea ice has hit a new low, not just beating the old record, but beating it three weeks earlier than the usual date for the minimum.

Arctic sea ice naturally goes through an annual cycle of expansion and contraction, with summer ice extent reaching its lowest point in September, then stabilizing and starting to expand again as the weather gets colder.  The previous record low of 1.61 million square miles occurred on September 18, 2007. The new low of 1.58 million square miles was set on August 26, 2012, with South-Carolina-sized areas of ice melting daily.  If this keeps up through mid-September, the minimum for 2012 will shatter all previous records.

The six lowest sea ice extents since satellite measurements began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years. While we don’t know for sure what the ice data looked like prior to that, the adventures of explorers searching for the fabled “Northwest Passage” remind us that heavy ice cover was once the norm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s even more alarming about the new record is that this wasn’t even a spectacularly warm summer in the Arctic. Rather, it seems that year after year of big summer ice melts have made the sea ice thinner and more fragile, thus more prone to melting each year. Cambridge University professor Peter Wadhams estimates that the ice pack “has lost at least 40% of its thickness since the 1980s, and if you consider the shrinkage as well it means that the summer ice volume is now only 30% of what it was in the 1980s.”

If all this ice loss strikes you as bad news for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife, you’re right. If you think that’s the only thing we have to worry about, think again. The difference with and without sea ice is like the difference between wearing a white shirt or a black shirt on a hot, sunny day. The white ice reflects the sun’s energy back out toward space, but the dark surface water exposed when the ice melts absorbs much more of the sun’s energy, leading to even faster heating.

And all that dark, heat-absorbing water where once there was ice leads to another problem: the icy sediments at the bottom of the sea may be starting starting to thaw as well. Professor Peter Wadhams points out, “we are also finding the open water causing seabed permafrost to melt, releasing large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.” 

This new low is another sign that climate change isn’t an issue we can just ignore now and worry about later. It’s real, it’s urgent, and it’s affecting our planet right now.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments