A new study by The Nature Conservancy has identified a series of landscapes across New York State that are predicted to have good chances of being resilient to the growing impacts of climate change.
Many studies suggest that increasing severe weather events like floods and droughts, along with rising temperatures and changes in rain and snow threaten to destabilize natural areas in New York, across the United States and around the world. Scientists at The Nature Conservancy suggest that New York has resilient landscapes that capture critical characteristics necessary for habitats to respond to climate change. These habitats are predicted to support many plants and animals while also serving as sources of clean drinking water, clean air, and fertile soils that people rely upon for survival. The authors of the study, however, warned that these natural strongholds must be protected from damaging development, pollution and other negative actions, or they could lose their ability to shield nature from climate impacts.
“This news gives us hope that – with a little help – some of the most critical natural resources in New York can endure climate change,” said Tim Tear, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in New York. “If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, they will help keep nature strong – which is good not only for wildlife but for people too.”
Tear added: “These strongholds will be critical to all life as the stresses from climate change continue to increase. They could serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plant and animal species that otherwise may be unable to find suitable places to live due to climate change. They could also serve as essential resources for food and water as society deals with the consequences of climate change.”
The study analyzed 156 million acres of land stretching from Virginia to Maine and into adjacent portions of Canada. Scientists looked at individual landscapes – such as forests, wetlands and mountain ranges – as collections of neighborhoods in which plants and animals could live. Two key factors combine to estimate the ability of these neighborhoods to respond to climate change – what they call “resilience.” First, areas with the most “complex” neighborhoods – those with diverse environmental settings including topography, geology and elevation ranges – were estimated to offer the greatest potential for plant and animal species to “move around the block” and find new homes as climate change alters their traditional, historic neighborhoods.
Second, the study looked at the “permeability” of these same landscapes – by developing a measure of the ability for local movement to occur. This measure of permeability was estimated by assessing whether roads, dams, development or other fragmenting features have created barriers that prevent plants and animals from moving around and finding new neighborhoods. Together, the combination of complexity and permeability defined a landscape’s resilience – its ability to respond to climate change.
Among the most resilient landscapes found in New York were those in the Adirondack region.
“We’ve always known that the Adirondacks were special places,” said Tear. “Now we know that these lands can play a critical role in keeping nature strong and healthy in the face of climate change, both for New York and beyond.”
Other resilient landscapes found by the study were limestone flats in northern Maine and nearby areas of Canada; floodplains in northeastern New York; coastal plains with oak-pine forests in New Jersey and Virginia; and highland forests in West Virginia. The Appalachian mountain chain that runs through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Tennessee was found to be especially important for helping nature survive climate impacts.
The Nature Conservancy has also been working to identify important areas that link these resilient landscapes together.
“It’s not enough to have separate islands of these climate-resilient landscapes,” said Tear. “We must make sure that more resilient landscapes are connected. To survive the changing climate, some species will be able to relocate to local neighborhoods while others will need to move great distances to entirely new landscapes. Just as people use roads to move from town to town, we need to make sure species have a way to move from one landscape to another.”
But Tear added: “Unfortunately there will be many species that will not be able to relocate as climate change makes their neighborhoods more unlivable. That is why the ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change impacts from worsening. Until that happens, these resilient landscapes offer a much needed safety net to allow many species to survive, interact and ensure that healthy natural systems in New York will be around for the benefit of our grandchildren and their grandchildren .”
Scientists for The Nature Conservancy are now conducting similar studies across the United States to identify other natural strongholds that have the potential to overcome impacts of climate change. Already the study is being used by government agencies and others to create a roadmap of where conservation activities should take place.
The study was funded by The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and The Nature Conservancy.
“We are excited about this cutting-edge work by The Nature Conservancy and have begun to use it to guide our land conservation grant-making," said Andrew Bowman, program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. "In an era of accelerating climate change and scarce dollars for land conservation, this work will be very helpful to us and others in selecting the most important places to protect.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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