Mark Anderson, conservation science director for the eastern U.S. , has been with The Nature Conservancy for 16 years. But he has recently begun to think of conservation science in a whole new light — with a focus on a fascinating process called resiliency.
“Most ecosystems — like forests or wetlands — have an amazing ability to recover from disturbance,” Anderson explains. “Resiliency is that capacity to recover. And we now understand that certain key characteristics need to be in place for a system to bounce back.”
Consider a forest struck by a tornado or hurricane. The presence of specific conditions, known as biological legacies, determines how well the species in that forest will be able to rebound.
“The state of the soil, plant parts left in the ground, dead wood that has fungi and salamanders in it — all of these things are like a forest’s memory. The more of them there are, and the better shape they’re in, the faster the forest will recover,” he explains.
Anderson has been spreading the word about resiliency through presentations to Conservancy staff and trustees, and likes to use an analogy involving “Bubble Boy”, the child from the 1960s who had no immunity, and Wolverine, a character from the X-Men movies. “When Bubble Boy left his protective bubble, he died because he had no resiliency,” says Anderson . “Wolverine, on the other hand, has the super-capacity to recover instantly. You can shoot him or push him off a wall, and he just recovers,” he explains. “He has infinite resilience.”
The resilience of forests devastated in the wake of the 1980 Mount Saint Helen’s eruption has given scientists an eye-opening view of this recovery process and the role it can play in a changing climate. “Certain places that are critical for future biodiversity, like limestone valley forests, will always be in that spot; they aren’t able to move. So one focus should be to enhance the resiliency of that place by protecting its legacy features,” says Anderson.
In New England , forests have been cleared over the centuries so there aren’t a lot of dead, rotting trees building the necessary layers of biological legacy. Managing forests in ways that enable ecosystems to restore those critical elements will translate to better forest health over the long-term.
Anderson emphasizes that conservation should work toward building an entire network of resilient places that represent the full spectrum of systems.
For instance, forest types should include those from high elevations along with coastal forests. To help with this, the Conservancy is exploring innovative science that looks at a few simple things — geologic bedrock types, miles of coastal shoreline and elevation zones — as a way to accurately predict how many species will be found in a certain area.
At a time when global climate change presents a high degree of uncertainty and the fear of irrevocable losses, resiliency offers an insurance plan. It will also help species that do have to shift their ranges.
As Anderson explains, “We’re trying to facilitate change so that if species must move because they aren’t adapted to a certain temperature range, we’ll have reserves in those areas when they show up.”
What Does Climate Change Means for Massachusetts? - Can you imagine MA without state symbols like the Atlantic cod and the black-capped chickadee? Download the fact sheet below to explore these and other impacts (pdf, 924KB).
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Dr. Mark Anderson is director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s eastern U.S. region. He has worked as an ecologist for the Conservancy for 16 years and provides ecological analysis and landscape-scale assessment tools for conservation efforts across eight ecoregions. Dr. Anderson holds a Ph.D. in Ecology from University of New Hampshire, where his research focused on the viability and spatial assessment of ecological communities in the Northern Appalachians.