Scientists Map “Natural Highways and Neighborhoods” to Help Plant and Animal Species Thrive in the Face of Climate Change
Map identifies lands with unique features that can help overcome climate impacts and offer species safe places to call home.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy have identified and mapped a network of landscapes and connecting corridors across the United States with unique topographies, geologies, and other characteristics that can help nature survive in the face of climate change.
As warmer temperatures, increased flooding and other climate impacts alter and destroy habitat, scientists believe these resilient landscapes will be strong enough to continue providing safe places for diverse plant and animal species, while also providing clean drinking water, economic income and other vital services people rely on for survival.
This gives us hope that if we work to keep these special places strong, they will keep nature strong.
“This gives us hope that if we work to keep these special places strong, they will keep nature strong,” said Dr. Mark Anderson, TNC’s Director of Science for the Eastern United States who led the mapping work. “These unique landscapes can provide safe places for plant and animal species to thrive in the face of growing climate threats.”
For the past 10 years, Anderson has led a team of 150 scientists who analyzed geological and topographical data from across the continental United States. They compiled the data into a mapping tool that is now publicly available and can bring government agencies, land trusts, businesses, private land owners, Indigenous communities, local leaders and others together to develop conservation plans that will help nature thrive on a national scale while also meeting the needs of people.
The scientists found that landscapes with diverse physical characteristics – such as steep slopes, tall mountains, deep ravines and diverse soil types – create numerous microclimates that offer plants and animals the opportunity to move around their local “neighborhood” to find suitable habitat where they can escape rising temperatures, increased floods or drought.
Anderson and his colleagues also mapped “natural highways” across the country – connecting corridors that allow species to move safely within and between these climate resilient neighborhoods.
Studies have shown that species are moving an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet higher in elevation each decade to find more hospitable places to live as the climate changes. But research by TNC and partners shows that nearly 60% of US lands and waters are fragmented by human development, blocking species movement and preventing them from finding new homes.
“Nature is on the move,” Anderson said. “It’s not enough to have isolated and disconnected landscapes that are resilient to climate impacts. Species also need a way to reach these resilient sites. While some species will be able to relocate to new homes within their local resilient neighborhoods, others will need to move great distances to entirely new landscapes. If these pathways are destroyed, many species could disappear forever.”
Among the many resilient and connected landscapes mapped by Anderson and his colleagues are:
Nevada’s Monsoon Passage, a natural highway of mountain ranges and wet valley bottoms that extends up from Lake Mead through the Great Basin National Park to the Idaho border; the Cumberland Forests area that spans 253,000 acres across Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia that not only safeguards wildlife habitat but also stores millions of tons of carbon; Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region which was shaped by glaciers during the last ice age and contains diverse features such as large kettle lakes and 300-foot-high ridges; and Bobcat Alley, a 32,000-acre forested corridor in Northwestern New Jersey that provides habitat to state-endangered bobcats.
Along with providing safe places where species can thrive, the network of resilient lands also brings benefits to people. The lands mapped in the Eastern US, for example, contain 75 percent of the region’s sources of drinking water, generate billions in outdoor recreation, sequester 3.9 billion tons of carbon and mitigate 1.3 million tons of pollution – resulting in an estimated $913 million in avoided healthcare costs.
Numerous state and federal agencies have started to incorporate the map’s data into their conservation planning. TNC has also shared the map with solar companies to help them determine the best places to site development without harming these lands.
“To achieve conservation at the scale needed, we must collaborate with people and organizations across both the public and private sectors,” Anderson said. “Keeping these resilient areas safe and healthy will require a wide range of conservation practices including such things as sustainable management, public and private land acquisition and easements.”
See the mapping tool at nature.org/climateresilience.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.