Scientists Locate Natural “Strongholds” across Southeast US that Could Protect Nature in the Face of Climate Change
As droughts, rising temperatures and other climate impacts threaten to destabilize natural areas across the United States and around the world, scientists believe these strongholds will be resilient enough to continue providing habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals while also serving as sources of clean drinking water, fertile soils and other important services people rely upon for survival. The authors of the study, however, warned that these natural strongholds must be protected from damaging development, pollution and other negative actions, or they could lose their ability to shield nature from climate impacts.
“This news gives us hope that – with a little help – nature can endure climate change,” said Dr. Mark Anderson, Eastern Division Science Director for The Nature Conservancy and author of the study. “If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, they will help keep nature strong.”
Anderson added: “These strongholds will be critical to all life as the threats of climate change continue to grow. They could serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many animal and plant species that otherwise may be unable to find habitat due to climate change. They could also serve as essential resources for food and water as society deals with the threats of our changing climate.”
The identification of the resilient sites in the Southeastern United States is part of an ongoing study by The Nature Conservancy to locate climate strongholds across the country. In 2012, the Conservancy analyzed 156 million acres of land stretching from Virginia to Maine to identify climate strongholds. This second phase of the study looked at 237 million acres across AL, FL, GA, KY, MD, NC, SC, TN, VA and WV. The Conservancy is now working to locate strongholds along the Pacific Northwest of the country and expects to have those results by the end of the year.
To identify climate strongholds, scientists analyzed individual landscapes – such as forests, wetlands and mountain ranges – as collections of neighborhoods in which plants and animals could live. Areas with the most “complex” neighborhoods – those with diverse topographies, geologies and elevation ranges – were estimated to offer the greatest potential for plant and animal species to “move down the block” and find nearby homes in suitable climates created by the topography. Hot slopes, cool coves, wet basins, and dry flats create options for the residents even as climate change alters their traditional neighborhoods.
Resilient landscapes were found throughout the Southeastern United States including among the limestone flats of central Florida that store and supply water for the entire state, and the high elevation forests of the Southern Blue Ridges that span Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.
The study also looked at the “permeability of landscapes” – whether roads, dams, development or other fragmenting features have created barriers that prevent plants and animals from moving into new neighborhoods. Together, that collection of diverse environmental settings and the ability for local movement define a landscape’s resiliency.
The study also identified important corridors that link these resilient landscapes together.
“It’s not enough to have separate islands of these climate-resilient landscapes,” said Anderson. “We must make sure that natural lands connect them together. To survive the changing climate, some species will be able to relocate to local neighborhoods while others will need to move great distances to entirely new landscapes. Just as people use roads to move from town to town, we need to make sure species have a way to move from one landscape to another.”
But Anderson added: “Unfortunately there will be many species that will not be able to relocate as climate change makes their neighborhoods unlivable. That is why the ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change impacts from worsening. Until that happens, these resilient landscapes offer a much needed safety net to allow many species to survive, interact and ensure healthy natural systems.”
The results of the study are now being used by government agencies and others to target areas where conservation activities should take place.
“This project has pioneered a new and potentially powerful approach to conserving the biodiversity of the Southeast in the face of climate change,” said Dr. Rua Mordecai, Science Coordinator for the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a partnership of non-profits, businesses, and state, federal, and local governments.
The Cooperative is using the results of the study to create a conservation “blueprint” that will be used by land and water managers to target where and how they can achieve the greatest conservation results.
The study was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Foundation has established a $12 million fund that will be used to protect these climate strongholds in the East. The Open Space Institute is managing that fund and is helping land trusts and public agencies across the East target strongholds for conservation in order to help wildlife adapt to and survive the changing climate.
“We are excited about this cutting-edge work by The Nature Conservancy and have begun to use it to guide our land conservation grant-making," said Andrew Bowman, program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. "In an era of accelerating climate change and scarce dollars for land conservation, this work will be very helpful to us and others in selecting the most important places to protect.”