You don’t have to look far to see that we are living in a time of rapid environmental change. An increase in severe and erratic storms and floods, sea level rise, and forest fires are having devastating consequences – both for human communities and for all the plants and animals that make up the natural world we rely on.
Over the last 50 years, Americans have seen a 20% increase in the heaviest downpours. Recent research demonstrates that the proportion of category 4-5 hurricanes has doubled from 20% to 40% in only 35 years (Holland and Bruyere (2012). Wildfires have burned up to 9 million acres of land annually in recent years, an increase from an average of 4-5 million acres. Such trends of extreme precipitation and drought conditions, as well as river and coastal flooding, are predicted to increase in frequency as the earth continues to warm and sea levels continue to rise.
If we fail to plan for and implement actions to bolster nature’s ability to survive in the face of these intensifying impacts, we will undoubtedly experience increased destruction to natural systems and rising costs from damages to property, livelihoods and our economy. In 2012, an estimated 67% of the $160 billion in globally insured disaster losses were attributed to storms and extreme weather events in the U.S. (Adventist). The number of billion dollar (adjusted for inflation) events that occurred in the U.S. from 1996-2011—eighty-seven—is roughly double that from 1980-1995 (NATGEO). I can relate, as coastal flooding from a big storm devastated homes in my town again this year, after a similar experience in 2010.
There are actions that can and should be taken that will help ensure that nature is able to continue providing the essential services of food provision, flood absorption and water quality protection in the face of these impacts. Ecosystem services – in other words the benefits that nature provides for people – are crucial to our survival and they are dependent on healthy, functioning and resilient natural systems.
A report just released by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Department of the Interior (DOI) and other federal and state partners details strategies and actions that all levels of government, working cooperatively, should implement. These government agencies assembled a partnership of more than 100 members from federal, state, and tribal fish and wildlife conservation organizations to draft The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.
This plan begins to lay out the strategies needed to protect nature, its component species, and all the essential services that nature provides. It’s not an exaggeration to say that continued protection of these services is nothing short of essential to the survival of all living creatures. Skeptical? Well, have you tried making it through the day without using water? Go on, give it a shot!
The Nature Conservancy is working with partners around the globe to put in place strategies to increase nature’s resilience in the face of climate change and other stressors. Two U.S. examples of this work are in the forests and rivers of the desert Southwest and on the low-country swamp forests of the Atlantic coastal shelf.
- In the Southwest, The Nature Conservancy is working with local stakeholders to lead the Southwest Climate Change Initiative. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are already pushing ecosystems across physiological and ecological thresholds here, causing large-scale forest dieback, large and more intense wildfires which lead to excessive sedimentation and runoff, polluting the Rio Grande Basin, which is Albuquerque’s source of drinking water. In one of the four focal areas of this project, the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, the goal is to build resilient forests to protect the birds and fish that depend on them, and protect life and property from severe wildfire. To date, the strategy being implemented – controlled burns and careful thinning of forest density – is beginning to demonstrate positive results in mitigating the intensity of forest fire burns and their impacts.
- In the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound region in North Carolina, a complex and diverse landscape of swamp forests, marshes, estuarine habitats, and rivers supports amazing biological diversity, including over a dozen endangered and threatened species like the roseate tern and red wolf. This extremely flat and low-lying area is also one of the country’s most susceptible to impacts of sea level rise (relative rate of 3 to 3.3 mm/year), and to wind and wave damage from hurricanes and nor’easters. Just last year, caused significant flooding in the region. Sea level rise and storms like Hurricane Irene are causing shoreline erosion, inundation of low-lying lands, and intrusion of saltwater which leads to vegetation dieback. These are not impacts of the future, but events happening now.
The Nature Conservancy is working with partners, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to plan for and manage habitat transition in this region. Strategies involve maintaining and enhancing marsh buffers, restoring freshwater wetland hydrology, and planting 40 acres (to date, with more planned) of salt-tolerant tree species to slow the rate of habitat transformation and inundation expected to occur with rising seas. We have also been building oyster reefs using limestone and oyster shells to decrease the erosive effects of shoreline wave action, resulting in a measured decrease in marsh erosion behind these natural breakwaters.
Without a blueprint to navigate through the great changes we are seeing around us, public and private conservation efforts will be less effective and efficient. The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy is an important step toward guiding proactive management of our natural resources amid climate change. Working together to put this strategy into action will allow us to find robust conservation solutions that can weather the storms of the future.
Sarah Murdock is Director of U.S. Climate Change Adaptation Policy for The Nature Conservancy
Featured photo by: Flickr user USFWS/Southeast, John Froschauer/PDZA (Red Wolves at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, WA) Used under a Creative Commons license.
Top Photo by: The Nature Conservancy/North Carolina (Tree planting at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina).
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