By Gonzalez, Patrick
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 27, No. 4
Climate change poses a fundamental challenge for natural resource management: Climate patterns are shifting in space and time, but national parks, national forests, and other natural areas remain at fixed locations. Research shows that climate change has shifted the ranges of plant and animal species and biomes (major vegetation types). Warming has also altered the timing of events such as plant flowering and animal migration. Climate change has even driven some frog species to extinction. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments and other research indicate that unless we substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and deforestation, the resulting warming may overwhelm the ability of many species to adapt. Climate change could convert extensive land areas from one biome to another, increase wildfire, transform global biogeochemical cycles, and isolate or drive more species to extinction.
Climate change affects the 2.6 million square kilometers of land owned by the people of the United States and managed by the federal government. This is nearly a third of the country's total land area and managed mainly by, in order of land area, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service (FS), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Park Service (NPS). The missions of these agencies all seek to manage ecosystems for future generations. They are stewards of places of national and often global significance, ranging from Yellowstone National Park (NPS) to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (FWS) to Tahoe National Forest (FS) to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (BLM).
Presidential Executive Order 13514 (October 5, 2009) directed Executive Branch agencies to develop adaptation approaches. Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3289 (September 14, 2009) established department-level climate change response programs that include the BLM, FWS, and NPS. Each of those agencies and the FS has issued a climate change strategy or plan.
Natural resource managers are attempting to move from general written strategies toward specific field actions to improve the resilience of species and ecosystems to climate change. Because the Executive and Secretarial orders have established strong enabling conditions and because existing agency policies generally support actions that promote resilience, policy does not constitute the primary obstacle for resource management agencies to take action on climate change. Rather, existing workloads, limited budgets, and lack of targeted climate change science information constrain full integration of climate change into natural resource management. Concerning the last factor, emerging experience at the NPS offers insight on how science can provide key information for agencies to manage natural resources under climate change. Certain specific science activities merit continued emphasis.
Focus on adaptation
Climate change science should ideally aim to answer resource management questions and contribute to scientific knowledge. Answering resource management questions will directly support the stewardship of land and water. Contributing to scientific knowledge will improve the rigor of the information. In the case of climate change, questions from resource managers and gaps in scientific knowledge point to the need to analyze the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to climate change and to develop and implement adaptation measures.
Adaptation, as defined by the IPCC, is an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to climate change in order to moderate harm or exploit new conditions. The IPCC identifies three types of adaptation: anticipatory (proactive adjustment before climate change occurs), autonomous (spontaneous, unplanned response to climate change), and planned (deliberate adjustment to observed or projected climate change). …