Nature’s Last Stronghold
Scientists predict the Central Appalachians will help ensure nature’s survival as climate change alters natural areas and weather patterns.
In 2012, The Nature Conservancy completed a study of all the forests on the East Coast, identifying the areas predicted to withstand the growing impacts of climate change and help ensure nature’s survival.
Among the most resilient landscapes identified were limestone flats in northern Maine and Canada; floodplains in northeastern New York; coastal plains with oak-pine forests in New Jersey and Virginia; and highland forests in West Virginia.
However, the Central Appalachian Mountain chain was found to be especially important for helping nature survive climate impacts - one of nature’s last strongholds.
Spanning 50,000 square miles, from eastern Tennessee to northeast Pennsylvania and Maryland, the Central Appalachians’ mosaic of forests and rivers provides habitat for more than 200 globally rare plants and animals, and ensures safe drinking water and clean air for tens of millions of people.
A New Hope
“This news gives us hope that – with a little help – nature can endure climate change,” said Mark Anderson, Eastern Division Science Director for The Nature Conservancy. “If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, they will help keep nature strong.”
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 will be 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 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.
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 animal and plant species that otherwise may be unable to find 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.
The study also identified important corridors, like the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania, that link these resilient landscapes together.
“It’s not enough to have separate islands of these climate-resilient landscapes,” said Anderson. “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 Anderson 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.”
Read Nature Conservancy magazine story, "Grounded," that elborates on the science and research on the Central Appalachians and its strength against climate change.