Friday, December 26, 2008

Will adaptation be the "new green"?

It may be the practical thing to do, given society's procrastination in dealing with the problem, but the idea of adapting to climate change sure sounds like a concession to me. It also feels likde a terribly "iffy" option. Think about it for a minute: having failed to to take preventative action in light of mounting irrefutable evidence that human introduction of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere was forcing an unprecedented rate of climate change, we're now suggesting that we'll be able to predict nature's complex, nonlinerar response and mobilize ourselves to adapt to her adaptations.

Don't get me wrong, I think options for success still exist and those options will have to focus to some degree on adaptation strategies (the longer we wait, the higher the degree). However finding this new family of solutions will, in turn, require a higher level of comprehensive thinking, planning and implementation than ever before. (GW)

Going with climate's flow

Environmental advocates, wildlife officials, and land trusts charged with protecting the natural world are beginning to take a new approach to climate change: rather than focus only on stopping it, they are also thinking about how to adapt to what's coming.

That may mean accepting that certain northern species - such as moose or loon - may not be part of Massachusetts' future ecology. More immediately, it means restoring bogs that could help prevent flooding, or serve as a fallback position for wildlife if sea levels rise - and tearing down dams to give fish access to cooler waters. Both such efforts are underway.

"The old model is - let's protect a certain species or natural community; let's protect this habitat for box turtle or for maple forest," said Andy Finton, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy. "We've got to be more flexible in our thinking, because we can't necessarily nail down all the species . . . In a way, we're protecting the stage, while the actors may change over time."

This shift in approach comes as President-elect Obama recently announced his environmental team, calling global warming an urgent issue.

Locally, a range of environmentalists and state officials are trying to anticipate the effects of climate change: From whether the spruce and fir trees atop Mount Greylock will turn into northern hardwood forests, to the fate of the region's vernal pools, home to salamanders.

The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization, recently completed the purchase of a freshwater marsh and a tidal marsh around the Kennebec Estuary in Maine. If sea levels rise, the freshwater marsh could transform into a tidal marsh, and the tidal marsh into mudflats.

"We're now looking at the entire estuary as a potential pilot site, where we're going to start doing the measurements and the research to tell us whether in fact these ecosystems do migrate," said Bruce Kidman, spokesman for the Conservancy in Maine. "Given the rise in sea level, will they do what we believe they do?"

The state is focusing on creating tracts of unbroken wild space that provide a large, resilient habitat for species to weather climate change.

For example, the state was a partner a year ago in the acquisition of 240 acres in the town of Webster, helping to create a connected landscape of 8,000 acres of conservation land, straddling the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border.

In Hanson and Halifax, state environmental officials are restoring a cranberry bog, creating a more natural wetlands at Burrage Pond. The idea is that the wetlands will soak up water, helping to prevent flooding - and also act as a refuge for wildlife driven inland if coastal wetlands are submerged as sea level rises.

Elsewhere in Southeastern Massachusetts, state officials are partners in removing dams from Red Brook (photo above), in part so that salter brook trout will be able to find a cool habitat if the rest of the stream warms.

"It's pretty clear that what we've traditionally thought of as natural communities in Massachusetts, because of these warming temperatures, are probably going to change," said Mary Griffin, commissioner of the state department of fish and game. "As a department, we're thinking there are a number of actions we can take today in everything we do . . . we will use the climate change science as a factor in a lot of the things we do day to day," from land acquisition to habitat management.

Next year, the state plans to factor in climate change in making land acquisitions. Last month, environmental leaders from across the state came together at a first of its kind conference to discuss how to cope with the predicted effects on flora and fauna.

A year ago, the New England Wild Flower Society called for a "new paradigm," in which "plant community concepts will likely need revision." The society, for example, will continue "banking" seeds from native plants, but with the knowledge that those seeds may not be natives of Massachusetts in 50 or 100 years.

"The interesting question will be, as plants move up from south that aren't considered native in New England, how do we look at those - at what point do they consider those native plants?" said Bill Brumback, conservation director of the Society.

Hector Galbraith, director of the climate change initiative at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, is working with a panel of specialists to rank the vulnerability of habitat around the state to climate change. Considered at risk of being eliminated over the coming decades are spruce-fir forest, boreal swamp, and cold water lakes and ponds.

Knowing the vulnerability of different habitat types is critical, he said, because it can help guide land acquisitions and allow the state to better make management decisions. The organization is developing a planning tool - based on historical and projected rates of climate change in the state, along with other stressors - that could give conservation officials a smarter way to decide how to invest limited resources.

While integrating climate change into current planning is relatively new, advocates noted that it was a critical time to rethink environmental strategies.

"I think the traditional conservation approach has embraced a sort of static view of the world, and that climate change is emphasizing the need for every one of us landowners to accept that change is going to happen," said Lisa Vernegaard, director of planning and stewardship at The Trustees of Reservations. "We could sit and wring our hands as change happens, but it would be just that - wringing our hands."


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