Some scientists say we need to spend more time talking about getting ready for climate change – not just trying to avoid it. One of the world’s leading conservation groups says reducing carbon emissions is crucial, but that it is also time to focus on strategies that help people and nature adapt to climate disruption.
The Nature Conservancy wants people to know if we act now, there are things we can do to help people and nature. It’s already working on strategies to adapt to climate change and is calling on leaders to recognize that our natural ecosystems often provide the best, and most cost-effective, adaptation approaches.
“The climate change discussion has been primarily focused on the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. This must continue, but we also need to think about the fact that some amount of climate change is already inevitable and irreversible, even if we are successful at dramatically reducing emissions,” said Nels Johnson, Pennsylvania Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy. “How can plants, animals, people and communities adapt to the changes we know are coming?”
That was the focus of The Nature Conservancy’s presentation to a Drexel University audience of more than 100 faculty, students and community leaders today.
Johnson said climate change is the biggest threat to the conservation projects The Nature Conservancy has accomplished over the last 50 years. He urged conservation groups and governments to change how they look at conservation and begin looking at ways to protect those parts of nature most likely to adapt to climate change and continue to sustain a wide variety of plants, animals, and healthy ecosystems. By doing this, we can help protect food and water supplies, and lessen the impacts of increased flooding.
As part of Drexel’s Global Warming Series, Johnson said the earth is already transforming – seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising. “Some of these changes are irreversible,” said Johnson. “However, actions we take now can alter the climate change trajectory, and greatly soften its impact on people and nature.”
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Pennsylvania can expect average temperature to increase by 4-to-8 degrees above historic levels in winter and 7-to-11 degrees in summer. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control says the changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level from climate change could alter the flow and salinity of the Delaware River and estuary – leading to reduced stream and river flow, lower aquifer recharge rates and reduced fresh water supply for Philadelphia and the region.
Scientists also have concerns about the Susquehanna River that runs from North Central Pennsylvania through Harrisburg to the Chesapeake Bay. It is already one of the most flood prone rivers in the East, and we can anticipate a worsening of this as precipitation and storm events increase. The resulting soil erosion could dramatically alter Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry and forests – which supply much of the East Coast timber market – and jeopardize drinking water supplies.
Pennsylvania’s forests are also vulnerable to temperature shifts. Losing species like sugar maple and hemlock could happen rapidly, valuable hardwoods could be at risk, and new and increased pest invasions could further weaken the health and value of the state’s vast and valuable woodlands.
Nature Conservancy scientists say the best course of action is to help nature help us. We can protect and restore habitats that limit and disperse floods, capture carbon emissions, and prevent damaging soil erosion. According to Johnson, restoring natural floodplains is the first line of defense. “Climate change will bring erratic rainfalls, and the natural tendency will be for governments to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure like flood walls to protect communities. But the walls also will prevent the water from recharging our drinking water supply and could lead to costly irrigation systems to sustain crops.
“The better solution would be to restore natural floodplains that improve the health of the rivers and safely absorb floodwater while recharging groundwater sources that will be needed in times of drought,” explained Johnson. “For far less tax money, nature can adapt to these changes and help sustain all of us – people and wildlife.”
“The Nature Conservancy is helping change how we protect habitats and how we manage natural resources to resist and recover from the damaging impacts of climate change,” explained Johnson.” For more than 50 years, The Nature Conservancy has worked to protect places of exceptional ecological importance — and our adaptation efforts are an extension of that work. We’re developing strategies that help natural areas absorb the impacts and remain healthy, functioning ecosystems — in other words, adaptation strategies.”
Many tools are being developed to help scientists and managers hone adaption strategies, and target conservation resources most important to helping nature fight back. Nature Conservancy scientists have created Climate Wizard, a web-based tool that can predict precipitation and temperature changes at the local level. Available to anyone to use, Climate Wizard can help land and water managers, government officials, and educators understand the changes likely to come, their likely impacts for agriculture, flood control, forestry and the like, and potential adaptive strategies.
“These tools are critically important to helping governments think about land use, water supplies, and future food production. They also help us prioritize the lands we need to conserve to ensure our forests continue to be productive and to help plants and wildlife migrate to suitable climates,” explained Johnson. “New technologies to reduce emissions remain the highest priority. At the same time, governments and conservation groups must think ahead and invest in strategies that help us adapt to the climate change impacts occurring now. It is essential that we continue to have functioning natural ecosystems with the broadest possible diversity of plant and animal life going forward.”
To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work on climate change adaptation, visit nature.org.
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.
Patrick von Keyserling
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