And the study warns that specific habitats — such as high-elevation forests and woodlands — are particularly vulnerable to this warming trend, which is being echoed across much of the western United States.
The study is the first of its kind to assess actual change across an entire state at a very explicit scale of 4 kilometers. According to the study's authors — Conservancy scientists Carolyn Enquist and David Gori — the findings will help resource managers as they develop climate-change adaption strategies.
David Gori is a senior ecologist for the Conservancy in New Mexico and has contributed to the scientific expertise of the Conservancy for 17 years. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona.
Carolyn Enquist specializes in assessing the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to climate change, and planning for adaptation to future climate change. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in biology from the University of New Mexico.
Nature.org spoke with Enquist about the study and what it means for conservation in a world facing dramatic climate change.
"Our study takes a look at what's actually been happening — and is happening now."
Carolyn Enquist, former climate change ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico
A typical reaction to this study might be — OK, but this is just one state. What are the wider implications of the study?
That climate change is a threat to much of the American West. Most states in the West have also warmed a great deal. In fact, some researchers say the West may be the "epicenter" of warming outside of the Arctic.
In New Mexico and across the U.S. Southwest, we've seen massive forest dieback in the past few years. This phenomenon, coupled with future predictions of warmer-drier climate conditions and declines in water resources, suggests that climate change is a major threat in this region.
Water is obviously a big issue in the Southwest — how have rainfall and drought trends changed in recent decades?
We found a surprising variability in precipitation changes: 54 percent of the state has experienced wetter conditions, 41 percent drier conditions and 5 percent has shown no discernable change in precipitation.
When averaged across the state, you get a slight wetting trend. However, when viewed geographically, some areas of the state have actually become a lot drier.
These drier conditions combine with warming to create a landscape that is exposed to more extreme climate conditions than usual. This can translate into biological stress for species — especially drought-sensitive ones.
Tell us about those species — how have plants and animals in New Mexico been affected by climate change?
Climate change exposure has been particularly extreme in New Mexico's mid-to-high-elevation forests and woodlands, where conditions have become much warmer and drier. These areas are where we've seen the most impact on species.
We found 48 examples of plants and animals that have experienced ecological changes linked to climate change. These changes range from population decline to shifts in habitat.
For example, the Jemez Mountains salamander has experienced significant population decline for at least the past two decades. This species is endemic to the Jemez Mountains, an area that's displayed strong warmer-drier conditions.
How is your study unique in the field of climate change research?
Much of the climate change research that has been done so far involves predicting the future impacts of climate change through modeling. Our study takes a look at what's actually been happening — and is happening now.
Previous studies looking at trends in New Mexico's climate have been derived from data across the entire state or its eight broad climate divisions. Instead, we looked at the state on a finer scale using PRISM data developed at 4 kilometers.
This finer scale allowed us to flesh out recent landscape-level changes in climate. We then related these actual cases of change to conservation areas in order to highlight sites that may be potentially vulnerable to ongoing climate change.
What happens next? What will you do with this information?
This report is the first of three studies. The next one will focus on New Mexico's watersheds, and the final report will include future climate projections for the state.
These three reports together will help to:
• Strengthen our understanding of how vulnerable native species and habitats are to ongoing climate change; and
• Identify pragmatic adaptation strategies that can be implemented immediately to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Resource managers in the western United States are hungry for this information — they want to know, what can we do about climate change now? So far there's been a lot of talk about climate change impacts, but we need to help managers move forward into the future.
Through our study, we were able to identify 11 conservation sites that we think will be most vulnerable to continued climate change. This kind of information will help natural resource managers prioritize their conservation actions.
Authored by Darci Palmquist. Last updated 2009