Tag Archive | "adaptation"

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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“Carrying capacity”: What Can Managed Relocation Do For Climate Adaptation?

A recent paper co-authored by Defenders President and CEO Jamie Clark highlights the conflicting and complex aspects of managed relocation, a conservation measure where species, populations, or genotypes are intentionally introduced outside of their historical range for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity or ecosystem functioning.  In the context of the paper, it is considered as an adaptation strategy to climate change, but it could also be a strategy for other types of conservation planning.

This is a valuable paper, especially because it summarizes very well the many potential problems and the conflicting issues with managed relocation, and how they relate to a possible and much needed future policy to guide such process. The authors state that, while managed relocation has been happening intentionally and non-intentionally around the world, many issues exist that would need to be addressed once this strategy starts being considered more often.  Problems and conflicts span the ethical, scientific, and cultural fields, and the authors stress the point that evidence to support managed relocation decisions is essential.  They mention the need of using decision theory to weigh such scientific, ethical, and cultural, as well as cost considerations, and call for collaborative efforts involving specialists that can effectively address the full range of said considerations.  They also bring up the issue of the accuracy of species distribution models under climate change, and their usefulness (or lack thereof) in predicting future ranges and habitats. Climate change is expected to affect the future range of many species due to its effects not only on the species themselves, but also on their habitats and essential interactions.  However, species distribution models do not account for the complexity of species interactions and needs, or for the maintenance of essential ecosystem services and processes in which each species is involved.  Caution is needed when using that type of data to inform managed relocation.

The question remains of what “appropriate managed relocation actions” (and/or “efforts”) are, but the paper cites some general criteria to help determine the appropriateness of a managed relocation action (e.g., when data suggest that the extinction risk of a species without relocation is high, relocation is feasible, and the relocation is unlikely to cause substantial harm to the proposed site).  The paper includes a list of key ethical, ecological, legal and policy, and integrated questions to base a decision framework on managed relocation.  Questions such as “which conservation goals take ethical precedence over others and why?”, “what are the limits of less dramatic alternatives to managed relocation, such as increasing habitat connectivity?”, and “what constitutes an acceptable risk of harm and what are adequate measures for the protection of recipient ecosystems?” can effectively help guide the decision making process.  Together with their recommendations, these questions provide very good guidance for a future policy regulating managed relocation.

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sunset refuge

National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise

The Refuge System is losing ground. Literally. There are over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges, and virtually all of them are experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and coastal storms exacerbated by climate change. Refuges need a system-wide response.

Defenders recently published a new report, National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise: Lessons from the Frontlines, based on insights from a national perspective as well as on the ground at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The report includes recommendations for national policy, on the ground habitat management, and for dealing with local communities, many of which are resistant to the management changes necessary to cope with the rising seas. These recommendations include:

To respond to it effectively, refuge managers must:

• Take a landscape-scale approach to conservation throughout the refuge system.

• Share information throughout the refuge system to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in responding to climate change.

• Receive policy guidance and support from FWS for coordinated climate change responses throughout the refuge system.

With sufficient financial support and manpower, coastal refuges can take steps to help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and buy time for species and habitats to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Steps that show promise include:

• Plant salt-tolerant species to minimize the impacts of saltwater intrusion.

• Restore altered hydrology to reduce salt-water intrusion and to regain natural marsh-building processes.

• Restore shoreline reefs to minimize climate-change-mediated coastal erosion.

• Work with partners and the public to develop long-term conservation plans for the next century and beyond.


A large and growing percentage of the American public is skeptical or confused about climate change. To build understanding and support for climate-change-related work at refuges, managers and staff must engage and convince the people who live near refuges. To do this, refuge managers need support and guidance from FWS to:

• Find and present tangible examples the local community can relate to of sea-level-rise impacts that have already occurred.

• Use modeling tools such as SLAMM to provide dramatic, easy-to-grasp visuals of what the landscape will look like in the future.

• Engage in an open community dialog to find out what’s important to locals and to explore alternatives for reaching their goals.

Only by taking a broad, new perspective to finding creative solutions for addressing climate change-related problems and to educating and involving local communities and partners can FWS meet its conservation mission and preserve our refuges, the network of special places where the needs of wildlife come first.

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Getting Strategic about Climate Change Adaptation

Back in February the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and state fish and wildlife agencies put forth a new concept in conservation, the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.   This unprecedented effort brought together 23 federal, state and tribal entities to “to inspire and enable natural resource professionals and other decision makers to take action to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and  ecosystem functions, as well as the human uses, values and benefits these natural systems provide, in a changing climate.”

The strategy is a call to action to protect and restore resilient habitat and habitat corridors, integrate climate change into existing conservation programs, build the conservation community’s capacity to address climate change, invest in coordinated research and monitoring, and provide natural resources managers the tools they need to adapt to a changing environment.

As we all know, a strategy is only as good as the actions that follow from it. And while it is vitally important that we enhance the climate resilience of our natural areas and habitats, climate change is going to affect many other sectors as well, and no one set of preparations should occur in a vacuum. That’s why it was interesting to see the new “Preparing for a Changing Climate: Washington State’s Integrated Climate Response Strategy.  This new plan is truly strategic in addressing climate change adaptation, drawing on the on the National Strategy for elements relating to wildlife, habitats, forests, and aquatic and marine species, but also addresses agriculture, infrastructure, and human health in a single, integrated plan.

Washington’s strategy is divided into nine different overview topics: A) Human Health; B) Ecosystems, Species and Habitats; C) Coasts and Oceans; D) Water Resources; E) Agriculture; F) Forests; G) Infrastructure and the built environment; H) Research and Monitoring; and I) Communication, Awareness, Engagement. The goals and strategies pertaining to natural resources topics closely mirror those of the National Strategy (see table below).

Incorporating the goals and elements of the National Wildlife Adaptation Strategy into the plans of federal and state agencies, tribes, and other conservation partners is the best way to ensure that the National Strategy will actually be implemented to reduce the impacts of climate change on the nation’s biodiversity.


National Strategy Washington State
Goal 1: Conserve habitat to support healthy fish, wildlife and plant populations and ecosystem functions in a changing climate.


B-1. Conserve habitat necessary to support healthy fish, wildlife, and plant populations and ecosystem functions in a changing climate, and protect connectivity areas between critical habitats to allow the movement of species in response to climate change.


C-3. Accelerate efforts to protect and restore nearshore habitat and natural processes.


F-1. Conserve and restore healthy, resilient forests across ownership boundaries and large geographic ranges to minimize the threats from climate change and extreme weather events.



Goal 2: Manage species and habitats to protect ecosystem functions and provide sustainable cultural, subsistence, recreational, and commercial use in a changing climate. Incorporating climate change information into fish, wildlife, and plant management efforts is essential to safeguarding these valuable natural resources.


 Strategy 2.3 Conserve genetic diversity (all  species)

B-3. Manage species and habitats to

protect ecosystem functions and provide sustainable cultural, recreational, and commercial use in a changing climate.


B-4 also gets at integrating climate change into planning.


F-2. Maintain and protect forest species and genetic diversity across the landscape to ensure long-term conservation of our forest genetic resources and help buffer against impacts of climate change.


Goal 3: Enhance capacity for effective management in a changing climate. B-5. Build capacity and support for the adoption of response strategies that help protect and restore ecosystem function and services at risk from climate change.


C-4. Build local capacity to respond to coastal climate impacts by providing tools to assess vulnerability and advancing research, monitoring, and engagement efforts.


F-4. Build capacity and support for maintaining, enhancing, and restoring resilient and healthy forests.


Goal 4: Support adaptive management in a changing climate through integrated observation and monitoring and use of decision support tools.


H. Research and Monitoring.
Goal 5: Increase knowledge and information on impacts and responses of fish, wildlife and plants to a changing climate.






B-4. Integrate climate adaptation

considerations for species and ecosystems

into natural resource and conservation planning, land use and infrastructure planning, and resource allocation and public investment initiatives.


C-5. Enhance our understanding and monitoring of ocean acidification (pH) in Puget Sound and coastal waters as well as our ability to adapt to and mitigate effects of seawater acidity on shellfish, other marine organisms, and marine ecosystems.



Goal 6: Increase awareness and motivate action to safeguard fish, wildlife and plants in a changing climate.


B-5 also discusses “building support”


I. Awareness and engagement.

Goal 7: Reduce non-climate stressors to help fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems adapt to a changing climate. B-2. Reduce non-climate stressors to help fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems be more resilient to the effects of climate change.

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Book Review: Finding Higher Ground, by Amy Seidl, 2011

Amy Seidl hit a home run with her recent book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming.  She not only talks about climate change and adaptation, but also draws helpful parallels with the natural world and how it adapted to various changes current and past.  Without ever losing sight of the science, Seidl manages to bring a down-to-earth message that resonates with the reader on a personal level.

She starts by explaining what she means by the age of warming.  In a succinct and straightforward manner – without jargon or gloom-and-doom – she lays down the facts about a “carbonated atmosphere” and what it can mean in terms of future climate.  She then goes on to describe examples of how plants and animals in nature have changed themselves in response to changes in their environment – how they adapted and eventually developed the traits they needed to survive.  Examples of phenology changes and phenotypic plasticity in plants, of natural selection in action of responses to warmer weather in squirrels, and of co-evolution of insect species and their food plants, all add up to a solid groundwork that leads to her human-oriented musings and stories.

Slowly, she introduces changes – in the environment, the food supply, crop yield limits – that are relevant to humans and are related to climate, and before you know it, she is talking about adaptation and energy savings and how individuals and communities can influence the outcome of global warming – if nothing else by adapting themselves.

In a trip that takes us through permaculture, solar panels, rain barrels, community farming, and wind mills – and let’s not forget the “laundraire”, a laundry airer that her family uses in lieu of a clothes dryer – she eloquently describes the various ways in which each of those strategies can influence or at least help one cope with global warming.  More importantly, she uses them to show that self-reliance can be key to adaptation, even if it is at a small level.  Homesteading, growing one’s own food, CSAs, all lead to an overall feeling of being part of nature and doing one’s share.  She is not naïve though – she does realize that the task at hand is immense and will require sizable changes.  However, people can get started with small steps, small savings and experiments, and should keep going to see how far that will take them.

She concludes with the thought that the use of fossil fuels is morally wrong, and we must seek new sources of energy.  Our industrial -consumer society is behind climate change and global warming; it can also be tapped to solve it.  If culture took us to where we are now, can it also be a selective agent, which could be used to help us adapt to new environmental conditions?  If so, how?  Humans are persistent and can endure through great losses and adapt.  Higher ground means finding ways to adapt, physically or figuratively.  The world we knew will no longer exist, and “solastalgia”, the feeling that your home place does not feel like your own anymore, like when Inuit cannot predict the ice, or farmers cannot count on rain seasons, will be haunting us.  Adaptation will be the basis of human persistence.  We must be allies with the natural world, and global warming may be showing us that – we just need to see it.

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Durban Recap: Adapting to What We Won’t Avoid

The United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties concluded last week in Durban, confirming what most of us already knew: that the only greenhouse gas mitigation measure that the nearly 200 nations involved could all agree to was punting the real action down the road a few more years. The final product of the conference, agreed to 36 hours after the negotiations were scheduled to conclude, is called the “Durban Platform for Action” and sets nations on a path to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by 2015, which would take effect by 2020.

Others have written at length about the details of the Durban Platform, as well as why it puts to death the oft-cited goal of limiting warming to 2oC, and commits the world to a future of 4oC warming or more. This hard fact makes even more important one of the less-discussed outcomes of Durban – its steps toward helping human and natural communities adapt to, or cope with, the warming to which we have committed ourselves by the fact that we keep kicking the mitigation can further down the road.

That outcome was the Durban Adaptation Charter for Local Governments, signed by the mayors of over 100 cities from around the world. This charter recognizes that while treaty negotiations happen at the level of national governments, many of the real impacts of climate change, and the means to address them, take place on a much more local scale. Local mayor Cllr. James Nxumalo led the signing, saying, “This charter will take local government forward in a partnership to deal with the many ecological, social and economic impacts that face cities around the world as a result of climate change.” The charter calls on local and regional governments to commit to ten steps:

  1. Mainstreaming adaptation as a key informant of all local government development planning
  2. Determining climate risks through conducting impact and vulnerability assessments
  3. Preparing and implementing integrated, inclusive and long-term local adaptation strategies designed to reduce vulnerability
  4. Ensuring that adaptation strategies are aligned with mitigation strategies
  5. Promoting adaptation that recognizes the needs of vulnerable communities and ensures sustainable local economic development
  6. Prioritizing the role of functioning ecosystems as core municipal green infrastructure
  7. Seeking the creation of direct access to funding opportunities
  8. Developing a robust, transparent, measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV) register
  9. Promoting multi-level and integrated governance and advocating for partnerships with sub-national and national governments on local climate actions
  10. Promoting partnerships at all levels and city-city cooperation and knowledge exchange

While cities and municipalities are rightly concerned with the many public health, safety and infrastructure aspects of climate change adaptation, this charter could also play a real role in moving natural resources adaptation forward. The Charter’s supporting text for the statement on vulnerability assessments (#2) explicitly includes both human and natural systems. Similarly, statement #4 directs governments to ensure that their adaptation activities in one sphere do not increase vulnerabilities elsewhere, and #6 prioritizes ecosystem-based adaptation as a means of reducing vulnerabilities in other sectors.

Will all this help? It’s hard to know for sure, but if the 1200 cities, towns and counties worldwide (nearly 600 in the U.S.) that are members of Local Governments for Sustainability sign this charter and take aggressive action based on it, we might go a long way toward adapting to the climate change we keep refusing to avoid.

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Bringing Better Tools to the Study of Sea Level Rise

A thorny problem for climate change adaptation is figuring out how to sort through projections and uncertainties to make a better determination of what impacts to expect. Two studies – one newly published, the other just underway – show promise for a better understanding, and therefore a more informed response, to the problem of sea level rise and its impacts on coastal ecosystems in California.

One of the more challenging issues related to climate change is the extent and timing of future sea level rise. While there is broad consensus that ocean levels will rise this century, due to a combination of melting of land-based ice, and the thermal expansion of ocean waters, it is very difficult to estimate the rate of this rise: for instance the 2007 IPCC report authors decided that they didn’t have enough information to determine the effects of changes in polar ice sheets, so they left them out of their projections. Since that time, scientists have refined measures to estimate the climate change impacts on the rate of flow of large ice sheets. Thus, while the IPCC’s 2007 sea level rise estimation was eight inches to two feet by the end of the century, by 2009 the US Global Change Research Program projected 3-4 feet of average sea level rise worldwide.

However, the story is not as simple as that. Sea level rise will have different impacts in different areas, depending on whether the land is also undergoing a natural subsidence (as is the case in the Chesapeake Bay region, where the land is still settling after the last Ice Age), and also on the amount of sediment being carried to coastal areas by the region’s river systems (for instance, multiple upstream dams deprive the Mississippi delta of much-needed sediments). Thus, predicting the future of a given marsh, for instance, is a function of both sea level rise and the relative rate of natural sediment accretion or subsidence. In a new study published in PLoS One, researchers at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory combined the best-available knowledge about rates of sediment deposition with scenarios for sea level rise to ascertain possible futures for the San Francisco Bay. They found that under the worst-case scenario, with high sea level rise (5 feet) and low levels of accretion of sediment and organic matter, the San Francisco Bay could lose 93% of its existing marsh within 50 to 100 years (human activities have already reduced tidal marsh in the Bay by about 90% from its historic extent). However, the authors also note that this worst-case outcome can be avoided by “conserving adjacent uplands for marsh migration, redistributing dredged sediment to raise elevations, and concentrating restoration efforts in sediment-rich areas.” They have developed a planning tool to help conservation practitioners where and when these changes would take place, to better inform restoration and land acquisition decisions.

The second study, recently announced by the California and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, will examine the impacts of sea level rise at five National Wildlife Refuges from Humboldt Bay in northern California, to Tijuana Slough near San Diego. The study, the first of its kind to monitor SLR impacts in such detail over such a long stretch of coastline, will “develop high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs); monitor water levels and tidal cycles to assess local-level inundation patterns; inventory vegetation species composition and relationship to elevation and tides; and quantify sensitive wildlife use at all five refuges.”

Coastal marshes are incredibly productive habitats that supply food and shelter to a array of birds and other wildlife, and serve as nurseries for many ecologically and commercially important species. Already greatly diminished by shoreline development, pollution and activities like dredging and ditching, these systems are also on the front lines of the impacts of climate change. These new tools may hold the key to helping managers and planners enable marshes to adapt to and move with the rising sea.

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Is a Better Forecast in Our Future?

©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.

A recent new report by the IPCC – the Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)– addresses the issue of extreme weather and climate change, and how likely it is that those two are related.  Among the changes that the report says are very likely to occur worldwide due to a changing climate are a general decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and a general increase in the number of warm days and nights. Significant changes in precipitation and drought patterns are also mentioned, as well as an increase in hurricane wind speed and a great likelihood that rainfall and temperature extremes will play a role in landslides and floods in high altitudes.  However, there is less certainty about natural climate patterns or other climate-driven shifts in weather events.

The World Resources Institute also recently released a report, “Decision making in a changing climate”,which acknowledges that climate change complicates decision making through its complexity and uncertainty.  Uncertainty about how climate systems will respond, how climate change will interact with other drivers of stress and risk, how ecosystems will respond – all affect the uncertainty about climate impacts.  One of the main challenges is uncertainty about how changes will unfold and what impacts will be on critical functions performed by physical, hydrological, and ecological systems – all of which are affected by extreme weather events.  Risks posed by extreme events will require decision makers to make difficult choices.

Add to all that the uncertainty about the amount of emissions that will be spewed in the atmosphere in the upcoming years (and how that will influence weather and climate), and about the outcome of the international climate negotiations happening right now in Durban.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a little less uncertainty in this whole business?

Enter “Yellowstone”, a new supercomputer commissioned by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) which, due to its capabilities, is expected to not only reduce uncertainty in weather predictions, but also quantify that uncertainty in a useful way for decision makers.  IBM recently won the bid to build Yellowstone, which will be located at a new NCAR Wyoming facility, and IBM staffers are enthused about the possibilities.  Lloyd Treinish, research head of Deep Thunder a project at IBM focusing on local weather forecasting tailored to weather-sensitive business operations, has deep knowledge of the new system, and is very optimistic about the new possibilities it can introduce into weather and climate research.  He mentions that the complexity of the models, the management of data, and the analysis and visualization of the results are a growing challenge in weather and climate modeling, and Yellowstone will be able to effectively address classes of problems that could not be well addressed before.

Yellowstone is not only bigger and faster, but it is also “smarter”.  The sheer computational capability of Yellowstone will allow for exploration of new dimensions in modeling.  Dr. Andrew Gettelman, a scientist at NCAR who will be working with Yellowstone, agrees.  He believes that the ability to see and quantify different levels of uncertainty at different scales will be a big improvement in weather modeling and forecasts, one that will allow for better use of the information coming from the models when it comes to decision making, preparedness, and risk and resource management.  He exemplifies his point with the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year: the tornados were predicted, but the level of uncertainty with the timing and location of the expected tornados did not allow enough time for useful preparations “on the ground”.  Dr. Gettelman expects the new system to have substantial societal impact because of better forecasts of extreme events and better measurement of the uncertainty associated with them.

Yellowstone will allow for the setup of new types of simulation to look at events in a climate context, which will help understand climatic patterns and how they are changing.  Climate change will in turn affect future weather, and ultimately also wildlife and their habitats.  Climate adaptation planning relies extensively on not only present conditions but also future predictions, and therefore it is easy to see how better predictions can translate into better adaptation strategies.  Yellowstone is expected to be up and running by next summer, and resources managers will have a valuable source of information at both the weather and climate scales to use in their short-term and long-term climate adaptation planning and decision making.

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Workshop Participants Build Their Land Trust’s Vision of Climate Change Adaptation

Workshop participants at Maryland's land trust conference build their situtation analysis for their target habitats.

In discussions about the role of land trusts in implementing climate change adaptation strategies, many have suggested that most of what land trusts do is already adaptation, while others have expressed the contrary opinion that adaptation is not “business as usual” for land trusts. Others worry that adaptation planning will take a lot of time and resources away from the day-to-day work of saving land. And others feel there is not yet enough information to start planning for how they will adapt their work to this new reality. These differing ideas can be confusing and discouraging.

To help get past this confusion, Defenders’ Living Lands facilitated workshops at the most recent Southeast Regional, Virginia, and Maryland land trust conferences to help the land trust community and their partners define their own vision for helping their communities adapt in the face of climate change.

The goal of this facilitated workshop was to demonstrate a quick and inexpensive process by which land trusts can begin to envision how climate change adaptation fits into their land conservation mission.

In this participatory workshop, the Defenders’ facilitated an exercise to build a common understanding of the biological, social, economic, political, and institutional systems that affect their conservation priorities. This process, called a “situation analysis”, is described in Step 1 of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. The Open Standards were developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) to bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

Planning for climate change adaptation will require that land trusts assess the drivers (e.g. air and water temperature increases, precipitation changes, sea level rise, species shifts in ranges) and the indirect and direct threats (e.g. floods, human responses, drought, invasive species outbreaks) to their conservation values under climate change. A “situation analysis” is a useful tool for documenting the drivers and threats affecting a biodiversity target as well as for identifying conservation actions that can be applied to contributing factors, direct threats, or even biodiversity targets.

We began the exercise by identifying the biodiversity targets as the habitat types used in the State Wildlife Action Plans of the southeastern US. For each habitat type we identified direct threats (which we cross-walked with the Standardized Threats Taxonomy developed by the CMP).

Using the US Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast report and the Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity, we identified the contributing factors related to climate change (i.e. climate change drivers) that lead to the direct threats and stresses on the target habitats. Contributing factors are often the entry points for conservation action (although actions may work through direct threats or even the target in some cases).

Then we identified how altered climate conditions link to direct threats using intermediate contributing factors. The facilitators helped the participants think through the causal relationships linking the altered climate conditions to the direct threats. The following thought process was helpful: Altered climate conditions result in this contributing factor which results in this direct threat which affects [via a stress] this target.

We were sure to discuss interactions between the altered climate conditions and non-climate-related threats (e.g. urban development). We identified potential relationships between climate factors and impacts on biological systems such as species range shifts, seasonal shifts, and disrupted biotic interactions. Ultimately the process of building the conceptual model assisted the group in identifying intervention points, or adaptation strategies.

The conceptual model shows the state of the world before taking action; the next step is for participants to think about adaptation strategies and the anticipated outcomes that will ultimately impact the habitat target. Participants identified broad categories of climate change adaptation strategies (e.g., outreach, policy, land protection, stewardship) and then described specific strategies that would reduce the effects of a contributing factor or direct threat on the habitat target.

In the example causal-relationships chain, yellow hexigons show adaptation strategies that intervene on contributing factors (orange) or direct threats (pink) to reduce stress on target habitats (green).

We talked about which strategies participants felt were most likely to achieve the desired outcome and which they felt were the most relevant to their land conservation work. We found it useful to consider several factors when evaluating strategies including: the likelihood the strategy will be successful, the feasibility of the strategy, the cost of the strategy, and the gap the strategy would address. Participants also identified the sources of uncertainty associated with the strategies (e.g., uncertainty associated with the direction/magnitude of altered climate conditions, the biophysical impact, or the outcome of the strategy).

As a wrap-up exercise, the group discussed what they felt were the opportunities and barriers to implementing some of the adaptation strategies they had identified. Many felt that the public’s skepticism about climate change and lack of funding were the largest barriers. But they also felt that the issue of climate change was potentially an opportunity to reinforce community support for their land conservation activities. Many participants felt the exercise was helpful to their thinking about climate change adaptation and thought they would use this process to initiate discussions with their organizations and stakeholders about climate change adaptation.


References and Resources 

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2007. Using Results Chains to Improve Strategy Effectiveness. An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success, Bethesda, MD.

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2009. Using Conceptual Models to Document a Situation Analysis: An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success Bethesda, MD.

Geyer, J. et al . 2011. Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Synthesis Report

Salasfsky, N., D. Salzer, A. J. Stattersfield, C. Hilton-Taylor, R. Neugarten, S. H. M. Butchart, B. Collen, N. Cox, L. L. Master, S. O’Connor, and D. Wilkie. 2008. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: Unified classifications of threats and actions. Conservation Biology 22: 897-911.

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.) 2009 Climate Change Effects from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast.

US Global Change Research Program, Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Regions and Sectors.

A full summary of the workshop with lists of strategies and the situation analyses is available here.

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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.