Special issue of ESA Frontiers assesses the impacts of climate change on people and ecosystems
By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer
Last Friday (Nov. 1), President Obama marked the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy with an executive order “preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change.” The order lays out expectations for the federal agencies under the President’s Climate Action Plan, from the Department of Defense, to USGS, to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The agencies must assess the “preparedness and resilience” of their programs and policies to prepare US lands, waters, watersheds, ecosystems, and communities for resilience to change, and make recommendations for internal changes to those programs, policies, and regulations. The President called on the agencies to work together to provide data, information, and decision-making tools for climate resilience and preparedness to the public and private sectors, and instructed the agencies to partner with State, local, and Tribal Leaders on infrastructure development.
The executive order is a big deal for the agencies and for US environmental science. ESA’s policy analyst, Terence Houston, will have a more thorough breakdown in his upcoming Policy News this Friday.
The coming century will bring many changes for natural systems and for the human societies that depend on them, as changing climate conditions ripple outward to changing rainfall patterns, soil nutrient cycles, species ranges, seasonal timing, and a multitude of other interconnected factors. Many of these changes have already begun. Preparing for a future of unpredictable change will require, as the President suggests, the coordinated action of people across all sectors of society, as well as good information from the research community.
The November 2013 issue of the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is devoted to an assessment of climate change effects on ecosystems, and the consequences for people.
“The impacts that climate change has had and will have on people are interwoven with the impacts on ecosystems. I think that we instinctively know that. In this assessment, we try to draw that connection,” said guest editor Nancy Grimm, past president of ESA, and a professor and Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University.
The authors also want to connect scientists, the information generators of the research world, more closely to the people who will be called on to plan for or take action in response to global change. The act of assessing (rather than reviewing or compiling) existing data is a good first step toward thinking like a manager or policy-maker, Grimm says.
“There is a tendency to think that an assessment is a review, and it’s not. There are judgments in these papers about significance of impact. That’s why we needed to involve so many people and perspectives,” said Grimm. Judgment about significance does not mean judgment about politics, however. The last report in the collection discusses policy and management strategies to prepare for our uncertain future, but no prescriptions for action.
“That has to do with remaining flexible as well,” said Grimm. Adaptive management means coping with uncertainty by being prepared to change management goals to meet emerging conditions. Such flexibility has not always been a hallmark of conservation management.
To produce this Special Issue of ESA’s Frontiers, over 50 ecological scientists and other stakeholders condensed and illustrated the work they had done for a technical input (see Staudinger et al. 2012) report on biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services for the third US National Climate Assessment (NCA). The Assessment is due to be released in 2014.
The Special Issue includes an article (Nelson et al., p 483) dedicated to climate change impacts on ecosystem services, but all of the articles explicitly discuss our reliance on these services for healthy, thriving economies and societies. The authors of the technical input report made a point of incorporating ecosystem services into each of its chapters.
“The assessment has this mandate to look at ecosystems and biodiversity, but there isn’t a mandate to look at ecosystem services. So this is a new thing that the contributors felt was important to add,” said Grimm. [The United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which produces the National Climate Assessments and yearly reports to Congress, “is mandated by statute with the responsibility to undertake scientific assessments of the potential consequences of global change for the United States” according to its website.]
For managers, the authors designed the collection of reports to demonstrate the interrelationships of human and ecosystem productivity, as well as the interrelationships of species, climate, and landscape. By properly managing ecosystems, they say, we are also managing their potential to harm or help society. The variability of the natural world demands equal creativity and flexibility in considering a range of complementary solutions to environmental problems.
The collection is aimed at both ecologists and practitioners. The authors hope to demonstrate the potential for researchers to collaborate with practitioners in identifying “policy relevant questions”—information that practitioners need to make science-based decisions about management of natural resources. Grimm would like to see more academic researchers designing “policy-relevant questions” into their research programs, so that research projects may address the data needs of managers while tackling basic science questions.
Grimm said that it’s good to see her academic colleagues taking steps toward actionable science by participating in assessments, thinking about the questions decision makers have, and looking for answers in published data.
“I think there is a really big desire in the ecological community to have what we are learning be used, but less understanding of how to make that connection to where it is used. What we argue here is that the assessment process is a way to bridge that gap,” Grimm said. “But wouldn’t it be better if we thought, before the experiment, about the things that decision makers need to know?”
The Special Issue tackles five major topics of concern:
Ecologists have predicted that species will move out of their historic ranges as climate changes and their old territories become inhospitable. This is already occurring. Past predictions that species would seek out historic temperature conditions by moving up latitudes, uphill, or into deeper waters have turned out to be too simple, as species movements have proven to be idiosyncratic. Because some species can move and cope with change more easily than others, relationships between species are changing, sometimes in ways that threaten viability, as interdependent species are separated in time and space.
Living things have powerful influences on the lands and waters they occupy. As existing ecosystems unravel, we are seeing the chemistry and hydrology of the physical environment change, with further feedback effects on the ecosystem. Ecosystem changes, in turn, feed back to climate.
Impacts on natural systems have direct consequences for crop and seafood production, water quality and availability, storm damage, and fire intensity. Working with rather than against, ecosystems may help society to adapt to changes, like sea-level rise and storm surge, that threaten lives and property.
Combined effects of climate and other pressures
Species will be hard pressed to adapt to rapidly changing physical conditions without room to move. Ecosystems are already stressed by habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, and natural resource extraction.
Preparation for change
Adaptation efforts may need to think beyond the preservation of current or historic natural communities. Existing relationships between species and the landscapes they inhabit will inevitably change. We may need to consider managing the changing landscapes to maintain biodiversity and the functional attributes of ecosystems, rather than specific species.
Special Issue: Impacts of climate change on biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11(9) November, 2013
*This open access Special Issue was generously funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the US Geological Survey, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.