Open Spaces : adaptation

Alaska: Across the Wildest State, Climate Change Threatens Many Species and Habitats

A momma polar bear stands with baby bears flanking her on either side

An Alaska polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Melting sea ice has made the polar bear a symbol of climate change impact. Photo: Susanne Miller, USFWS. Download.

Mutlimedia iconAudio: Interview with Alaska Native Elder Christina Westlake

Video: Polar Bear Research on the Chukchi Sea

With an area of more than 375 million acres extending 2,000 miles from east to west and 1,100 miles from north to south, Alaska dwarfs other states. The northernmost state is also unmatched in its range of climates and habitats — and nearly all are feeling impacts from climate change. 

During the last half-century, Alaska has seen some of the most rapid warming on earth, with temperatures rising 1 to almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit across its climate regions and ecosystems. By the year 2100, the average annual temperature of Alaska’s North Slope is projected to rise another 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

 “One big difference between Alaska and the Lower 48 is that here we’re dealing with impacts that have already occurred, not just forecasts of change,” says John Morton, Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “And because Alaska hasn’t undergone widespread landscape change from non-climate stressors such as agriculture and development, the impacts of climate change aren’t masked as they are elsewhere.”

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Pennsylvania: Climate Change Brings Uncertain Future for Bog Turtle

A bog turtle sits in what looks like hay and grass
The impacts of climate change could amplify other threats to the bog turtle, such as habitat loss and fragmentation. Photo: Gary Peeples, USFWS. Download.

In October 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Pennsylvania, in part, to protect the federally threatened bog turtle. Climate change, however, could amplify existing threats to the turtle’s fragile habitat. 

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources all have identified habitat loss and fragmentation -- mostly due to development -- as the main threat facing bog turtles.

When the Refuge boundary was established, Cherry Valley was experiencing a surge in residential development that threatened the turtle’s habitat -- wet meadows and other shallow, sunny wetlands. In a November 2010 article in Refuge Update detailing establishment of the refuge, Refuge Manager Michael Horne said the first parcel acquired for Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge’s provided “promising wetlands in terms of bog turtle management.”

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Colorado: Partners Work to Offset Effects of Shrinking Snowpack

Ski Lift at Resort

Trees growing at high elevations below melting snow fields. Warming and snowpack declines in Colorado and the Rockies are projected to worsen through the 21st century. (Greg Pederson, USGS, 2009)

Diminishing snowpack in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains due to warming temperatures has partners joining forces to lessen impacts on the region’s ski industry, wildlife resources and quality of life.

A study released earlier this month by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that snowpack declines in Colorado and the Rockies during the last 30 years are unusual compared to the past few centuries. Prior studies by the USGS and other institutions attribute the decline to unusual springtime warming, more precipitation falling now as rain rather than snow, and earlier snowmelt.

The warming and snowpack decline are projected to worsen through the 21st century, foreshadowing a strain on water supplies. Runoff from winter snowpack—layers of snow that accumulate at high altitude—accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the annual water supply for more than 70 million people living in the western United States.

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Iowa: The Power of Prairies

Root length and complexity

This root illustration shows the variation in root system length and complexity for several common prairie species. Download. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Biologists at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Iowa have been studying carbon sequestration on the prairie for more than 15 years. Their research has been the springboard for a national research effort which is based on the idea that grasslands have the capacity to store large amounts of carbon.

The ability to store carbon is a valuable ecological service in today’s changing climate. Carbon, which is emitted both naturally and by human activities such as burning coal to create electricity, is a greenhouse gas that is increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere. Reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2,000 climate scientists from around the world, say increased greenhouse gases are causing global warming, which is leading to sea level rise, higher temperatures, and altered rain patterns.

Most of the prairie’s carbon sequestration happens below ground, where prairie roots can dig into the soil to depths up to 15 feet and more. Prairies can store much more carbon below ground than a forest can store above ground, according to Dr. Cynthia A. Cambardella, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment.

To quantify this information, Cambardella and a team of research scientists collected soil cores to a depth of four feet from each of 19 reconstructed prairies ranging in age from one to 17 years within the Neal Smith Refuge in May of 2000, 2005, and 2010.

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New York: Invasive Insect Infestations Spread Further North, Threatening Hemlock Forests

A bug in a wooly nest with larvae

A hemlock woolly adelgid infestation can destroy a hemlock tree in just a few years. The insect gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. Photo: Michael Montgomery, USDA Forest Service.

In New York, climate change may make it easier for an invasive species to continue its spread to hemlock forests further to the north.

The threat comes from the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that feeds on hemlock trees. The species gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. The adelgid uses its long mouth to extract nutrients from hemlock needles. This disrupts the flow of nutrients in the tree. Needles dry out, turn color, and drop off. Larger limbs start dying off within a couple of years. Trees become badly damaged and in many cases die after several years.

Hemlock forests provide unique habitat for wildlife. Their shade helps keep soil and water temperatures cool and provide microclimates in which many plants and animals thrive.

The hemlock woolly adelgid was first discovered in the United States in Virginia in the 1950s. It is native to Asia and was likely introduced to the U.S. by accident.  It has thrived along the east coast and has damaged hemlock forests from Maine to Georgia.

In New York State, the hemlock woolly adelgid was discovered in the 1980s. Infestations are now found in 25 counties. The infestations are clustered in two regions: the Hudson Valley, which includes most of the lower portion of the state, and the Finger Lakes. There is great concern over the possibility of the insects eventually spreading to the forests of upstate New York, including Adirondack Park.

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Kansas: Climate-Savvy Restoration Project Makes Wildlife Feel At Home

An open grove with blue sky and very green grass
Go Zero groves, like this one on Marais Des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They will also help control flooding and enhance water quality along the Marais des Cygnes River. Photo: Jane LeMunyon Photography.

In the state popularized by “The Wizard of Oz,” conservation partners aren’t just dreaming about a better world over the rainbow. They’re joining forces to fight climate change and provide a home for wildlife – now and into the future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Conservation Fund (TCF) have teamed up to restore 775 acres of native forestland along the Marais des Cygnes River located on the border of Kansas and Missouri.  

The effort is part of The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program, which helps address climate change by providing ways for individuals, organizations, and even entire communities to reduce their carbon footprint, and then offset emissions by planting trees.

Tim Menard, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who splits his time between Kansas’ Flint Hills and Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuges, says the trees not only will trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they will also help control flooding and enhance water quality along the Marais des Cygnes River.

It’s also a win for wildlife.

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North Dakota: Climate and Disease Take Toll on American White Pelicans

A baby white pelican with a leg band
A banded white pelican chick at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge faces many threats — including storms, disease and predators — before it is mature enough to fledge. Pelicans’ earlier initiation of nesting is putting the chicks at greater risk. Photo: USFWS. Download.

Each April and May, in a rite of spring, American white pelicans begin arriving in their Northern Plains breeding grounds from the Gulf of Mexico.  But for the last several decades, something has put the large birds ahead of schedule.  That something, researchers believe, is warming tied to climate change — the same change that’s recently brought egrets, ibis and herons to nest on the refuge, well north of their long-time nesting areas.

The early birds are paying for their two-week head start with more chick deaths from severe spring storms.  For the pelicans, this setback comes on top of other major stressors, most notably West Nile Virus. If — and how — the pelicans will adapt is unclear.

One place scientists and wildlife managers are monitoring is Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. The Chase Lake colony is one of the world’s four largest colonies of American white pelicans. 

As many as 35,000 white pelicans nest on Chase Lake’s remote wilderness islands. That’s up from 50 in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt established the refuge to protect the species from being hunted to extinction. Despite the colony’s rebound, the great-winged birds are still considered vulnerable because they have so few breeding areas.

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New Hampshire: Shorter Winters Mean More Ticks, Pose Big Threat to Moose

A moose with a clearly visible rib cage rests in murky water

Tick infestations can drain the blood supply of moose and can lead to malnutrition and death. In a year with average weather conditions, a moose will probably carry 30,000 ticks by late fall. In years with a late first snow fall, a moose could carry 160,000 ticks. Photo: Patrick Lafreniere. Download.

The average moose in New Hampshire stands about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Yet a creature smaller than the eraser on a pencil is a big threat to these massive animals, popular with both wildlife watchers and hunters.

The creatures posing the threat are winter ticks – Dermacentor albipictus. A New Hampshire Fish and Game Department study that began in 2001 collared and tracked moose and found winter ticks accounted for 41 percent of all moose deaths in the state over a five-year period. That was nearly the same percentage of collared moose killed by hunting and moose-vehicle collisions combined. Virtually all the calf deaths during the study were due to winter ticks.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Department researchers will spend the next several years studying the best way to accurately determine the numbers of ticks on moose and how that relates to mortality rates, as well as the changing climate.

According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “rising temperatures over the past few decades have caused snow to become wetter and decreased the average number of snow-covered days across the state.” In looking toward the future, the report says climate change could see New Hampshire’s snow season shrink by almost 50 percent by mid-century.

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Illinois: A Blueprint for Change Unites Conservation Partners

Deer in wooded forest

Winter at Waterfall Glen the Forest Preserve in Lemont, IL. A 2008 assessment of climate change released by Chicago Wilderness indicates that across the upper Midwest, average annual temperatures have risen; ice and snow are melting earlier in spring and arriving later in fall. Photo: Michael Kappel.

Multimedia iconPodcast:  Chicago Wilderness Executive Council Chair Laurel Ross and Executive Director Melinda Pruett-Jones

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Multimedia iconPodcast: Nancy Williamson, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Steven Byers, Illinois Natures Preserve Commission. 

- Download Transcript (PDF)

Rising annual temperatures.  Earlier springs.  Later falls.  Warmer winters.  More frequent heavy rains.  These are some of the ways climate change is expected to affect Illinois and the Midwest. 

But a blueprint for managing change is emerging from the wilderness. 

Chicago Wilderness is a multi-state alliance of more than 250 conservation organizations from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan working together to restore local nature and improve quality of life by protecting the region’s lands and waters – now and into the future.   

“Like conserving biodiversity, addressing climate change is a complex endeavor that requires a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach, says Kristopher Lah with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago Field Office, a Chicago Wilderness partner. “Having a 250-member coalition to work with provides the conservation community with the tools and resources to act effectively and efficiently to the compounding threat of climate change.”

A 2008 assessment of climate change and biodiversity released by Chicago Wilderness indicates that across the upper Midwest, average annual temperatures have risen; ice and snow are melting earlier in spring and arriving later in fall; there are fewer cold snaps; heavy rains are occurring twice as frequently as they did a century ago; and there are warmer winters and a longer growing season. 

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Alabama: Small Changes Can Spell Big Trouble for Vulnerable Species

A diamondback terrapin sits in grass

Diamondback terrapins were once abundant on Dauphin Island, Alabama.  Now, they need state protection in order to survive. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS. Download.

In Alabama, folks embrace their natural resources.  From the sea turtles and manatees of the Gulf Coast, to the darters and mussels of northern Alabama streams, the state has some of the most diverse wildlife in the nation. This incredible variety of species includes many that are rare, and some that are imperiled.

More than 113 of Alabama’s species are now listed as threatened or endangered, including some 61 freshwater mussels, 10 reptiles, and 21 plants. With so many imperiled species in their care, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists take climate change seriously.  That’s because slight changes in climate can affect the survival of a species.

“Small environmental changes can have big effects in a relatively short period of time, particularly when you are considering such powerful ecosystem drivers as temperature and moisture,” explained Dan Everson, Deputy Field Supervisor for the Service’s Alabama Field Office.  “Many of the plant communities we have come to know and love on the Gulf coast are responsive to relatively subtle changes in moisture.  Because of the flatness of the coastal plain, a few extra inches of ground water, a few extra floods, a slight change in elevation of the tides, or even a few extra inches of rain per year may determine whether our children will continue to admire a slash pine woodland with an understory of pitcher plants and toothache grass, or find themselves instead tripping over cypress knees and palmetto crowns in a tupelo swamp.”

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Last updated: June 21, 2012