Adapting to Climate Change

Planning a Resilient North

Climate Change in Alaska

See stunning pictures of the lands and animals under threat from a changing climate in Alaska.

"The next generation awaits our action. The time for effective policy and strategic action is now."

Evie Witten, director of the Conservancy's Northern Climate Change Program

Across the Arctic North, signs of climate change are all around.

In the northern latitudes of Canada and Alaska, people who rely on traditional hunting and gathering watch as

  • Permafrost and sea ice melt;
  • Habitats change;
  • Tundra ponds where waterfowl forage disappear; and 
  • The ranges of familiar species shift.

And as shorelines erode, the residents of remote coastal villages plan their own costly retreat from the advancing sea.

But as these changes begin to take hold, The Nature Conservancy is at work to ensure that wildlife and people in the North remain resilient to them.

With help from computer climate models and the traditional ecological knowledge of people who depend on fish and wildlife for their subsistence, the Conservancy is helping to plan a network of protected areas and prepare communities to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

Some of the Greatest Temperature Increases on Earth

"The next generation awaits our action. The time for effective policy and strategic action is now," says Evie Witten, the Conservancy's director for the Northern Climate Change Program.

“Adaptation and resilience to climate change are not abstract concepts in the North, so we are working with partners to share state-of-the-art information for the effective conservation of important resources,” Witten added.

In fact, global records show that the Arctic habitats of Alaska and northwestern Canada have experienced some of the greatest temperature increases on the planet. Computer models predict that average annual temperatures may rise by at least 5-10 degrees over the next 50 years.

'Nursery for the Continent'

And these changes could spell trouble for a region that teems with life and functions as a nursery for the continent. 

The vast majority of Alaska and northwestern Canada is accessible only by air or water, with few roads and little human encroachment. It provides the healthy habitat for herds of migrating caribou, bears and wolves — not to mention millions of breeding songbirds and waterfowl.

“Here, we basically have an intact landscape. We’re looking at maintaining the ecological values of the whole landscape,” says Karen Hamre of the Protected Areas Strategy, a broad-based conservation planning effort with which the Conservancy partners in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Planning for climate change is a critical part of maintaining these values well into the future.

Protecting People and Nature Across Boundaries

So the Conservancy has been asking some fundamental questions to direct its efforts on climate change in the North:

  • How can we help protect both nature and the people who rely on northern lands and waters for their livelihoods?
  • What are the consequences of the projected temperature increases?
  • And how will people and nature adapt to them?

But the Conservancy is also acting. In Alaska, the Conservancy has teamed with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska and the University of Illinois Department of Atmospheric Sciences to help answer questions about what the Arctic can expect from climate change.

Under the direction of climatologist John Walsh at the International Arctic Research Center, this partnership created a series of maps to communicate the latest science to land managers and policymakers at all levels of government.

And in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Conservancy is joining the Protected Areas Strategy as the area prepares for a new wave of development linked to a proposed 800-mile gas pipeline. Some liken its arrival to the opening of the American West at the end of the 20th century. The Conservancy is providing climate-change scenarios to help inform this planning process.

“It’s a window of conservation opportunity. Now is the time to help create a network of protected areas that is resilient to climate change,” says Evie Witten, director of the Conservancy’s Northern Climate Change Program.

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In Alaska’s Arctic, the Conservancy is working with partners to — for the first time — model and develop adaptation strategies for the cumulative effects of both energy development and climate change across this rapidly changing landscape. These are on-the-ground solutions aimed at the large scale of the Arctic. 

In Southeast Alaska’s Tongass rainforest, the Conservancy is studying climate-induced changes in forest composition and helping the U.S. Forest Service think about how to adjust management to make our forests less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We are also working with local communities to assess the carbon impacts of using wood from forest thinning activities to produce efficient biomass energy to meet local heating needs.     

‘Strong Like Two People’

The Conservancy's work here also relies on the voices of aboriginal and First Nations residents, who are fluent in the traditional ecological knowledge of home — offering an intimate understanding of how caribou herds migrate or the timing of waterfowl migrations. 

The Conservancy will ground-truth the performance of its models with help from aboriginal partners who possess local traditional knowledge.

It’s an understanding that draws from the wisdom of the late Tlicho Chief Jimmy Bruneau of the Northwest Territories. More than a generation ago, he coined a phrase — “Strong like two people” — to define the combination of traditional knowledge and the tools of Western education.

The Conservancy’s work continues in this spirit: partnering with local people to protect the lands and waters — nature’s own infrastructure — that people and wildlife depend on every day.


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