Adaptation options for climate-sensitive ecosystems and resources

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Source: GLOBE Foundation

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a report that can help reduce the potential impact of climate change on estuaries, forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and other sensitive ecosystems. The report, entitled Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources, identifies strategies to protect the environment as these changes occur.

To develop this assessment, scientists studied national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, national estuaries, and marine protected areas - all protected by the federal government. The report takes a unique approach by using the management goals set for each protected area to understand what strategies will increase the resilience of each ecosystem - in other words, increase the amount of change or disturbance that an ecosystem can absorb before it shifts to a different ecosystem. Using these strategies, managers can maintain the original goals set for these ecosystems under changing climatic conditions. The strategies will be useful to federal agencies and can also be broadly applied to lands and waters managed by other government or nongovernmental organizations.

The report finds that climate change can increase the impact of traditional stressors (such as pollution or habitat destruction) on ecosystems. Climate Change is affecting many species attributes, ecological interactions, and ecosystem processes. Because changes in the climate system will continue into the future regardless of emissions mitigation, strategies for protecting climate-sensitive ecosystems through management will be increasingly important. While there will always be uncertainties associated with the future path of climate change, the response of ecosystems to climate impacts, and the effects of management, it is both possible and essential for adaptation to proceed using the best available science.

The report finds that many existing best management practices to reduce these stressors can also be applied to reduce the impacts of climate change. For example, current efforts to reverse habitat destruction by restoring vegetation along streams also increase ecosystem resilience to climate change impacts, such as greater amounts of pollutants and sediments from more intense rainfall. The United State’s ability to adapt to climate change will depend on a variety of factors including recognizing the barriers to implementing new strategies, expanding collaboration among ecosystem managers, creatively re-examining program goals and authorities, and being flexible in setting priorities and managing for change.

In addition to existing practices, the report describes 7 other adaptation approaches that can be used to maximize ecosystem resilience to climate change, such as:

Protecting key ecosystem features - focusing management protections on structural characteristics, organisms, or areas that represent important 'underpinnings' or 'keystones' of the overall system.

Reducing anthropogenic stresses - minimizing localized human stressors (e.g., pollution, fragmentation) that hinder the ability of species or ecosystems to withstand climatic events.

Representation - protecting a portfolio of variant forms of a species or ecosystem so that, regardless of the climatic changes that occur, there will be areas that survive and provide a source for recovery.

Replication - maintaining more than one example of each ecosystem or population such that if one area is affected by a disturbance, replicates in another area provide insurance against extinction and a source for re-colonization of affected areas.

Restoration - rehabilitating ecosystems that have been lost or compromised.

Refugia - are areas that are less affected by climate change than other areas and can be used as sources of 'seed' for recovery or as destinations for climate-sensitive migrants.

Relocation - refers to human-facilitated transplantation of organisms from one location to another in order to bypass a barrier (e.g., urban area).

The peer-reviewed report provides the best-available science to date on management adaptations for ecosystems and resources. It was developed following the guidelines developed by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

The Global Change Research Program in EPA’s Office of Research and Development led the development of the report. It is one of 21 synthesis and assessment products commissioned by the CCSP.

The CCSP was established in 2002 to provide the US with science-based knowledge to manage the risks and opportunities of changes in the climate and related environmental systems. The program is responsible for coordinating and integrating the research of 13 federal agencies on climate and global change.

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