Can Wildlife Keep Up?
The race to save climate-resilient landscapes.
Here’s our challenge. In 2016, Earth’s temperatures were the hottest ever recorded. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are influencing where plants grow. Habitats are shifting.
How can we help wildlife adapt to the changes?
A new study published earlier this year by The Nature Conservancy helps address the question. It identifies a series of landscapes across Ohio that are predicted to best help plants and animals withstand the growing impacts of climate change and 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 believe these resilient landscapes have the best chance to serve as habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals, while also providing drinking water, fertile soil and other important natural services upon which people rely.
“This new science gives us hope that—with a little help—nature and its diversity will survive,” says Bill Stanley, state director for the Conservancy in Ohio. “If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, for example by restoring connections between natural areas, and managing invasive species, they will continue to thrive even as our climate changes.”
Some of the most resilient places identified in Ohio include Cuyahoga Valley National Park, parts of the Little Miami River valley and the Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve. These strongholds and others will serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plants and animals that otherwise may be unable to find habitat due to climate change.
Expanding the Science
The study, conducted over three years, analyzed 336 million acres of land encompassing all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, much of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. Parts of two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Manitoba, were also included in the analysis. The Conservancy has already completed its analysis of the Eastern United States and the Pacific Northwest and has plans to complete a “wall-to-wall” map for the contiguous United States within a few years.
Scientists used computerized geographic information systems to analyze 30-meter plots, areas about twice the size of a small city lot. Natural areas that have diverse topographies, geologies and elevation ranges, and that are well connected to other natural areas, offer the greatest potential for supporting a variety of plants and animals. 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 other natural areas. Together, that collection of diverse environmental settings and the opportunity for local movement of plant and animal species define a landscape’s resilience—the ability of nature to persist and bounce back despite an unpredictable climate.
“Protecting the most important sites we’ve identified and connecting them together is one of our best strategies for ensuring that we continue to have a rich diversity of life in the region,” says August Froehlich, GIS analyst and the project’s lead in Ohio.
Later this year, the Conservancy will identify important corridors that link these resilient landscapes together. Government agencies and nonprofit groups are expected to use the resulting maps to guide their conservation efforts.
“It’s not enough to have isolated islands of these climate-resilient sites,” Froehlich says. “We have to ensure that corridors connect them together, so species have a way to move from one landscape to another.”
Yet the fact remains that many species won’t be able to relocate.
“We need to act now to protect these areas. At the same time, we need clean energy to keep climate change impacts from worsening,” Stanley says. “Until the climate is stable, these resilient landscapes offer a much-needed safe harbor.”