Dr. Kim Hall

As The Nature Conservancy's Great Lakes Climate Change ecologist, Dr. Kim Hall is working to identify projected challenges that may arise from climate change in the Great Lakes. Through her research and collaboration with other scientists, she is focused on developing plans to preserve biodiversity in the face of uncertainty. Dr. Kim Hall talks about the potential impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes. Watch a video interview with Dr. Hall.

"we are focused on understanding both the impact of these changes on species and systems, and how they make existing threats such as habitat loss, degraded water quality and invasive species even worse"


What kind of impact(s) might we expect in the Great Lakes due to climate change?

Dr. Kim Hall:

One of the first tasks I took on after starting my job at The Nature Conservancy was to synthesize current research on climate change impacts in the Great Lakes region and evaluate the vulnerability of conservation priorities such as forests, coastal wetlands and rare species.

Key impacts for our region include increases in temperature and storm intensity. Now we are focused on understanding both the impact of these changes on species and systems, and how they make existing threats such as habitat loss, degraded water quality and invasive species even worse.

For example, an increase in temperature can increase survival of crop and forest pests. Increasing pest populations and the human response of increased pesticide use can threaten biodiversity. Our challenge is to devise proactive, efficient strategies that will help species and systems adapt to ongoing changes and protect key ecological services like water purification that are essential to our quality of life.


What kind of temperature changes can we expect to see in the Great Lakes due to climate change?

Dr. Kim Hall:

The Great Lakes region has warmed and is projected to get even warmer. Future expected changes include increases in the winter minimum temperature – so the effect will be that it feels less cold. Summer high temperatures are also expected to increase, which will affect both air and water temperatures. 

That sounds great to many of us, but warmer temperatures can have strong effects on natural systems, from reducing ice cover on lakes that contributes to more evaporation and warming, to increasing survival of crop and forest pests.


How will climate change impact the amount of rain and snow the Great Lakes receives?

Dr. Kim Hall:

Some projections suggest that precipitation levels will increase, while others suggest they will decrease. However, there is strong evidence that as temperatures rise, the amount of rain that falls in a storm will increase because as the air warms, it can hold more water. We are already seeing evidence that storms are becoming more intense – heavy storms are about 25% more common today than 50 years ago, and this trend is projected to continue.


Will we see an increase or decrease in lake levels for the Great Lakes?

Dr. Kim Hall:

Like most climate change-related questions, this is best answered in terms of what is most likely given current information. Most projections suggest that lake levels will show a long-term drop as warmer air temperatures and less ice cover lead to more evaporation. 

However, we need to think broadly about all of the possible changes associated with climate change and make sure that we come up with strategies that can address a wide range of outcomes. This is one of our biggest challenges with anticipating climate change and modifying our conservation actions accordingly.


How will these changes affect the plants and animals that live in and around the Great Lakes region?

Dr. Kim Hall:

Temperature and precipitation patterns are really important components of what makes a place habitable for a given species. From a human perspective, a change of a few degrees might seem really minor, but most animals survive and reproduce best in locations with favorable climates.

Animals and plants are already responding both in the Great Lakes and around the world by moving to cooler areas, either up in altitude or toward the poles. Most species are expected to move north since the Great Lakes region is pretty flat, but there are a lot of barriers in their way.

For example, there are the Great Lakes themselves – how are species in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula going to move with those big lakes blocking their way? For fish and other aquatic species, some may be able shift into deeper waters or move north, but many cold-water species like brook trout, lake trout, and whitefish are expected to decline dramatically.


How will The Nature Conservancy continue its mission of protecting biodiversity given this uncertainty?

Dr. Kim Hall:

My work on climate change adaptation often focuses on strategies, like protecting large blocks of habitat, developing sustainable land use practices, restoring ecosystems and bringing fire back to the landscape. These actions promote healthy, resilient natural systems. 

However, it’s not business as usual. We are pursuing new partnerships to address new threats, such as those associated with higher volume storm events affecting agricultural and urban systems, washing pollution and sediments into sensitive freshwater systems.


Can you elaborate more on how some of The Nature Conservancy’s conservation strategies are changing?

Dr. Kim Hall:

One thing that is changing about our approach to conservation is that we are thinking even more about the connections between nature and people. Climate change will clearly impact people as well as wild animals and plants, and while many of these impacts will be direct, like increases in costs related to flooding, others will have strong links to other species. For example, some of the species expected to move further north may carry diseases or lead to increased crop losses. 

Part of our goal is to engage with a wide variety of partners to make sure that many of these new actions benefit both humans and biodiversity. This means that the conservation community needs to communicate the value and critical importance of viable natural systems to our everyday lives.


What can people do to help?

Dr. Kim Hall:

By reducing our energy use, we can all work to reduce future emissions that will lead to even more extreme changes in climate. We can also support sound climate policy. And, we can help reduce current stresses on natural systems by choosing non-invasive plants for landscaping, thereby improving habitat for wild species. 

Finally, we can engage in citizen science by contributing observations to nationwide efforts like the National Phenology Network (www.usanpn.org). Doing that will provide data to help scientists like me understand where the Conservancy’s work can have the greatest benefit.



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