Scientists Pinpoint Natural “Strongholds” in Virginia that Could Protect Nature in the Face of Climate Change

The Upper James River, Rappahannock Forests and Blackwater River area of Dendron Swamp are predicted to be climate-resilient landscapes in Virginia

Richmond, VA | June 04, 2012

A new study by The Nature Conservancy has identified a series of landscapes across Virginia and the northeastern United States that are predicted to withstand the impacts of climate change and help ensure nature’s survival.

As droughts, rising temperatures and other climate impacts threaten to destabilize natural areas across the United States and around the world, scientists identified resilient landscapes, including several in Virginia, strong enough to continue providing habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals while also serving as sources of clean drinking water, fertile soils and other important services people depend upon for survival. The authors of the study warned, however, 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 – nature can endure climate change,” said Michael Lipford, Virginia executive director of The Nature Conservancy. “Our conservation efforts over the past 60 years in Virginia have helped protect these special landscapes, and this study shows that if we continue to care for these areas they will in turn help care for us.”

Lipford added, “These strongholds will be critical to all life as the threats of climate change continue to grow. They could serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plant and animal species that otherwise may be unable to find suitable habitat due to climate change. They could also serve as essential resources for food and water as society deals with the threats 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. Areas with the most “complex” neighborhoods – those with diverse topographies, geologies and elevation ranges – were estimated to offer the greatest potential for plant and animal species to “move down the block” and find new homes as climate change alters their traditional neighborhoods.

“We’ve always known that the Upper James River watershed and Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia were special places,” said Lipford. “Now we know that these lands can play a critical role in keeping nature in Virginia and the Central Appalachians and beyond strong and healthy in the face of climate change. Closer to Richmond, natural strongholds exist along Dragon Run and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries, as well as along the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers and the Great Dismal Swamp. ”

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 study also looked at the “permeability of landscapes” – whether roads, dams, development or other fragmenting features have created barriers that prevent plants and animals from moving into new neighborhoods. Together, that collection of diverse environmental settings and ability for local movement define a landscape’s resiliency.

The study also identified important corridors that link these resilient landscapes together.

“It’s not enough to have separate islands of these climate-resilient landscapes,” said Lipford. “We must make sure that corridors connect them together. 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 Lipford added, “Unfortunately, there will be many species that will not be able to relocate as climate change makes their neighborhoods 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 healthy natural systems. With careful land conservation of resilient sites in the future, we can add to the safety net of resilient landscapes.”

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 road map of where conservation activities should take place.

“We recognize that some of our greatest challenges in managing the national forests come from outside environmental and social influences such as a changing climate and an expanding population,” said Tom Speaks, supervisor of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests in Virginia and West Virginia. “A better understanding of these key resilient landscapes can help us prioritize and implement our management and restoration practices.”

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.”

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