Last week, key authors of the recently released National Climate Assessment (NCA) discussed the impacts of climate change on the United States and its wildlife. The discussion was part of the Safeguarding Wildlife from Climate Change Web Conference Series, a product of a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The NCA reports detail current and future impacts of climate change and guide more sustainable plans for the country’s future. This most-recent report — released last month —was the third since Congress began requiring regular assessments in 1990. Over 300 experts compiled the report, and it underwent extensive peer review. Unlike previous reports, the third NCA highlights the immediacy of climate change impacts and discusses how people can begin to respond to those impacts. “Climate change — which we once considered an issue for the distant future is firmly in the present,” said Emily Cloyd, Public Participation and Engagement Coordinator for the U.S. Global Change Research Program at last week’s web conference. “We see the impacts in every region in every sector across our nation.” According to Cloyd, however, “There is still time to act, to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts.” Below are some impacts of climate change that experts touched on during the web conference:
Ecosystems are composed of all the interacting living things in a particular area along with the surrounding environment. A single ecosystem can provide a wide variety of habitats to wildlife along with important resources for people — like crops, lumber, or fresh water. However, climate change is altering ecosystems in a number of ways:
- Water. Climate change is impacting an ecosystem’s ability to improve water quality and regulate water flows. In some areas, this can mean less water for people as well as for animal habitats. The NCA report predicts that as much as 47 percent of trout habitat in the interior West could be lost by 2080.
- Extreme Events. Climate change makes ecosystems more susceptible to fires, floods, and storms. For example, higher temperatures and less rainfall in the some parts of the U.S. are resulting in devastating forest fires. In 2011, wildfires consumed more than 8 million acres, killing 15 people and altering wildlife habitats.
- Plants and Animals. Entire landscapes are changing, and the NCA report details how some plant and animal species may be unable to keep up. Increased forest fires, extreme weather conditions, and the decline of sea ice threaten some habitats and species. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified four ringed seal (Phoca hispida) subspecies as threatened or endangered in 2012 primarily due to climate change.
- Seasonal Patterns. The report shows a long-term trend toward shorter, milder winters and earlier spring thaws. The shift is upsetting the timing of spring blooms along with animal migration and hibernation. For example, warmer springs have helped plants appear earlier in Alaska. When caribou breed later in the spring, fewer plants are available for food, reducing the chances of newborn calf survival.
Disturbing the Nation’s Forests
Forests provide valuable habitats to many wildlife species throughout the U.S. and even help reduce the effects of climate change.
“What we see as the single biggest issue for forests of the nation are accelerating forest disturbances,” said Steve Running, a professor at the University of Montana and a contributing author to the NCA report. He said that these disturbances could come in different forms. In the West, warming temperatures and less precipitation put forests in greater risk of wildfire and insect infestations. In the Southeast hurricane damage and logging threaten forests.
These disturbances also negatively impact the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks. Consuming electricity, traveling, and even breathing produce carbon dioxide, and the nation’s forests absorb about 16 percent of these carbon emissions. Experts believe that climate change will only continue causing forest disturbances, shrinking the nation’s carbon sink. Running even warned that forests could turn into a source of carbon instead of a sink if people aren’t careful. Excessively harvesting forests for industrial uses or for biofuel production could end up generating more carbon dioxide than the forests absorb.
Adapting to Impacts
For the first time, the NCA report includes a section on how people can prepare for and adjust to the impacts of climate change. Federal, state, and local governments along with many private organizations are already beginning to implement action plans. Examples of adaption efforts include removing dams that block fish migration and installing green roofs to help modulate extreme temperatures or waterflows.
These action plans are not universal and often need to be tailored to the environments and resources of individual regions. For example, regions in the western U.S. may need to consider how to combat drought or wildfire while coastal regions may have to assess how to respond to rising sea levels.
“The success of adaption efforts — specifically in the mid- to long-term — is going to be intimately tied to the degree to which we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bruce Stein, Director of Climate Adaption at the NWF. “I like to refer to these as dual approaches not dueling approaches.” Experts at conference agreed that the EPA’s recent announcement to reduce power plant emissions is a huge step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done to prepare and adapt to future impacts of climate change.
However, the EPA mandate may have another hidden benefit. “I think this EPA announcement has really launched [climate change] into the front of the news cycle in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time,” Running said. The announcement and timely release of the NCA report helps initiate meaningful dialog that could bring us one step closer to minimizing the effects of climate change.
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, June 11, 2014.