National Wildlife Refuge System

Climate Change Planning

High tide exposes turtle eggs at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, NC.
Credit: Billy Shaw

Climate change poses one of the most significant conservation threats of the 21st century. The Earth’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate that has the potential to cause abrupt changes in ecosystems and increase the risk of series extinction.

Major ecological effects include habitat transformation, species range shifts, altered phenology, sea-level rise, drought and desertification, increased fire severity, prairie pothole drying, coral bleaching, permafrost melting, numerous hydrological effects, and storm intensification.  Climate change also exacerbates such problems as invasive species, environmental contamination, and wildlife diseases. In general, climate change severely compromises the ecological integrity of North American and global landscapes.

The basic responses to climate change in the conservation community are adaptation, mitigation, and engagement (including education). Planning has a key role to play in each of these responses. To help guide such planning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped develop two national climate change strategic documents, Rising to the Urgent Challenge and the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  In addition, the Refuge System and its partners produced Planning for Climate Change on the National Wildlife Refuge System (Documents may not be fully supported in Firefox.).


Sea-level rise planning

“More change has taken place in the land, in the air, the wildlife – the fabric of life, and certainly in the ocean in the 20th century than during all preceding human history put together.” …Sylvia Earle, oceanographer
Credit: Photo of butterfly fish at Palmyra Island National Wildlife Refuge by Alex Wegmann/USFWS

Climate change affects every national wildlife refuge. One of the most prevalent and challenging issues for the Refuge System is sea-level rise, affecting 173 refuges. Some of the most detailed planning efforts have involved modeling the projected effects of sea-level rise on coastal refuges, most notably with the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM). Modeling the effects of sea-level rise helps refuge managers, planners, and biologists to prioritize habitat management, land protection, and other adaptive approaches.

Last updated: May 14, 2014