Conservation in a Changing Climate
Northeast Region

Climate Change in the Northeast: 

To view the powerpoint presentations from these sessions, please visit our Conference Powerpoints page.

June 3, 2008

Plenary Session 1

Opening Address, Lynn Scarlett


Intro: Lynn has a very high interest in NE and in collaborative conservation; we’ve seen her in action.  The four interior agencies were thinking about who to ask to speak for this conference, and all said “we want Lyn Scarlett.”  She’s in charge of the DOI Climate Change Task Force.  And she has a passion for conservation and collaboration.  She readily accepted. 

Lynn Scarlett
Deputy Secretary
Department of Interior

A paraphrase of Ms Scarlett’s comments (all mistakes are the note-takers—Julie McNamee):  Salient points in green  

I’m delighted to be here.  I’m impressed with your agenda, including scientists from various fields.  At DOI I’ve had many challenges in the past 7 years.  I’ve seen osmo-regulation of salmon in S FL, turtles hatching and migrating in Virgin Islands; I’ve even been in a shark tank in Mexico – a familiar feeling since I work in Washington…

Complexities of Climate Change; the evidence is significant.   
Interface of Climate Change and its effects on 570 million acres of lands we manage within DOI.  We need to know how climate is changing those lands.
Examples:  melting sea ice, glaciers, sea level rise, storm events, fires, species locations, migrations.

We can’t always tie effects only to Climate Change.  But the changes are not speculative. 
Glacier NP has had a 73% reduction in glaciers from 1850 to now.
Snowpack is less, and melts sooner in spring.  Fire season is 1 month longer than even in the 70s. We’re seeing collapsing permafrost in Alaska, as well as accelerated coastline erosion--160 feet per year in some places.

Models predict increased precipitation in most of America, but less in the southwest. 

The challenge is how do we develop a framework for action.  Even if CO2 emissions stop today, we’ll still see effects 50 years or more. The Climate Change Task Force identified issues and options for adaptation and mitigation, also legal and policy, and science needs.  We looked beyond the IPCC to tailor the science we need. 

Lay out broader thoughts in context:

Understand problem set before us:
Global circulation models are improving, but assessing at scales less than 50 km is limited.  The effects at local and regional scales are complex. The models project  increased summer precipitation and decreased winter precipitation--what does that mean, really?  We need to monitor!
Higher latitudes are experiencing more rapid changes. 

The impacts of permafrost melting are complex and varied, and depend on rates of change, position of watersheds, hydrology, soil texture, etc.

Twenty percent of our coastlands will be flooded over next century.  But the actual, local effects will be variable depending on location.   In some locales, there are other land transformations occurring that are not related to climate: Dam operations may outstrip climate change as an impacting force. 

Some examples:   

  1. Migrating groups of warblers are sensitive to photo period to trigger their migration. These birds depend on certain insect larvae that emerge based on warmth.  Temperatures are warming and larvae emerge earlier than the birds are arriving.  We’re seeing an uncoupling in N Minnesota of larvae and warblers, but in the southern Great Lakes area, there is no change.
  2. In Coast Rica, there’s a frog parasite that needs low temperatures to thrive. Scientists thought that the predicted warming would diminish the parasite. But they found that the parasite is thriving and they’re losing 60%  of the frog species population.  As it turns out, minimum night temperatures are still within range for the parasite to thrive.  However, increased daytime clouds are lowering temperatures and making the range better for that parasite—even though average temperatures are showing a warming trend. 
  3. Mountain pine beetles have always preyed on Lodgepole pine in the west, and their range has been kept in check by cold winters.  Now, with warmer winters, the pine beetles are moving northward and up in elevation, affecting a second pine species that has not ever been exposed to the beetle, and the less cold winters aren’t killing them off.  Pines have been killed by the beetle over 10 million acres in British Columbia.  Projections are that the beetle will spread northward through Canada and down into USA on the eastern side of the mountains.

The lessons from these three examples?  We face incredible complexities.  Nighttime temperatures are rising but daytime temperatures are cooling –Costa Rica.  Impacts are highly location-specific.  Northern Minnesota is seeing change in bird-food relationships, but with the same species, there is no change just a couple 100 miles south. We often lack specific knowledge. The operative word is Change—all is flux, nothing stays still.  It’s more true now; we see rapid change occurring.


Complexity, variability, diversity. 

Precipitation trends—the devil is in details and details matter.  Our knowledge base is limited.

Other stresses contribute:  Invasives run amok. Land fragmentation. Contaminants. Competition for fresh water. 

Is this a hopeless picture?  No, but the near term approach is adaptation, not mitigation, though we have a role in managing our own operatons. 

We should continue implementing long standing tools.  Protect migration corridors. Tackle invasives, wildland fires. Conserve diversity lands and habitats.  We need interconnectivity and diversity.  Protect and encourage coastal wetlands and sea marshes.    
Keep strategies to reduce pollution.   We need to broaden our management horizons as well as recognize climate change as a factor. 

Regarding habitat designations, we’ve looked backwards in past.  What’s the historic range of a species. Now should we be looking to future: Where will the habitat likely be for this species?

We have genetically diverse populations across locations.  Are those lands diverse enough, and are there ways for the lands to interconnect.  We need to maintain ecosystem processes.  Birds’ and plants’ and bees’ relationships will change; will we need strategies for seed dispersal, for example?

We’ll place a premium on resilience and nimbleness. We need above all, more monitoring more evaluation, and the ability to correct along the way.

We’ll have to manage using holistic thinking to avoid unintended consequences.  It’s tempting to have fast growing monocultures to sequester carbon, but not good for diversity or the ecosystem processes.  We can’t be uni-dimensional in carbon sequestration goals. 

We need to maximize natures’ capitol.  Use Bio-engineering to re-establish natural water systems.  On landscape scale, increase efforts in cooperative conservation.  Cooperation will become more relevant.

We need more assessments.  Set priorities, know where our vulnerabilities are.  We need tools to assess changing conditions, to assess endpoints and extremes.

In Conclusion:  “The closer we look, the blurrier things get.”  However, solutions don’t elude us altogether.    

On a personal note, thanks for the experience these 7 years.  My greatest surprise was the dedication and professionalism, profound workmanship of DOI folks and fellow agencies and partners.  Thank you for your dedication and hard work for the people and resources of America. 

I did not talk much about the Climate Change Task Force. I’ll be happy to answer questions.

Q  What has been the biggest change in 7 years in the country on attitudes toward climate change?
A  There is much more general acknowledgement that climate change is a real phenomenon.  There is more general recognition that it is associated with human actions.  At the same time, there is a growing appreciation that there are a lot of impacts on the rest of the world, a growing sophistication of awareness.

Q  We know that there are risks in assessing what the outcome is going to be.  What could be acceptable risk to resources, and what risk will people accept. 
A  Two things as prelude: 1. We face uncertainties at fine scale, and it really amplifies the importance of expanding our knowledge.  USGS has a concept for identifying current monitoring and linking it to what’s needed, and understanding.  We need more monitoring.
2. We have adaptive management tools and they are more relevant to this.  Adaptive management directs us to set goals, monitor as we act, and make adjustments as we learn more. 
Now: How much tolerance there is for that from the public.  I don’t know.  For some, it generates anxiety.  Some would rather have a prescriptive requirement than an adaptive management goal with adjustments.  There’s a nervousness about lack of certainty.  But also more people are aware that there are risks, and adjustments will be needed.  It is, and will be, an education process. 

Q  Can you tell us about the decision of polar bear and Endangered Species Act and climate change?
A  The polar bear designation of ‘threatened’ was a first for DOI.  NOAA did a coral reef decision based on ocean temperatures, but for us this is first.  We have petitions to designate ESA on walrus, penguins, and a few other species in that same type region.
1. As we spent 100s of hours on that decision, we faced a conundrum.  The current polar bear population is 25,000--the highest it’s been in 40 years.  Through protection actions since the 1960s, bear populations have grown.  So we have the highest populations we know of, yet for this decision we looked to the future, the habitat in the future, and the IPCC report, and the models project a picture that is dismal for the polar bear.  In 100 years the arctic is projected to by ice free, and in 50 years less ice --as we look to list these species, with rapid change afoot, there are many science questions. We depended on models. 
2. By regulation, critical habitat has been designated by looking back.  We don’t have an example of looking forward to define habitat. 

Q  Has there been discussion on government acquiring land for corridors? 
A.  Not immediately.  But the Climate Change Task Force has identified that as an option to consider.  Looking at lands with an eye to whether we have corridors.  Now, it can be a combination of land acquisition, as well as cooperative conservation—easements.    The “Healthy lands initiative” in west, related to oil and gas activity, is taking a focus on how do we telescope outwards from small to larger scale to see those corridors and plan.  Partnerships, revised land use planning will be tools we use. 

Q  How do you see future planning in places like Everglades National Park.
A  Dan Kimball, Superintendent at Everglades, is combining their restoration efforts and their evaluation of their vulnerabilities to Climate.  The good news is the restoration they’re doing will make park more resilient and resistant to salt water intrusion.  So for now, at least, their restoration efforts will achieve climate resilience as well.   

Moderator:  Thank you for coming

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Keynote Address: Robert Corell

Opening… Our challenge is to move from data and global scale discussions to something significant to where we live and which can be conceptualize in the here and now.

Start by setting the Context:

  • History: ice ages occur every 100,000 years
  • We’re currently in an inter-glacial age period
  • How do we know: data taken from ice cores
  • Looking at this inter-glacial period: GHG levels have risen dramatically
  • It is probable, and high likely, that most of the change has occurred from anthropogenic actions
  • (image of 10,000 inter-glacial period)
  • Within the inter-glacial period there has been several warming and cooling periods of 1 to -1 degrees.
  • As we look at the warming trends – we’re predicting several degrees of additional warming from now forward
  • Current rates of global emissions 450 ppm - - rise in temperature will follow shortly thereafter
  • The result:  We’re moving away from the earth’s “ecological niche”  
  • How well are the models predicting warming? fairly well, but we are less prepared to describe or to calculate outcomes that will result from the warming
  • Spread of warming estimated at 1.5 to 4.5 - - representing the range of uncertainty in our science
  • Impacts consequences: food security, water issues, ecosystems, and others (slide)

In Summary: (slide)


  • Artic experiencing most rapid and sever change on earth (slide)
  • Impacts of Warming – artic is an amplifier – 10 degrees of warming expected, already seeing 3-5
  • Sea Ice:  current observations are showing a much more rapid loss of ice than models projected
  • Last year - - for the first known time Canadian archipelago was open – and stayed open for 2 weeks
  • The numbers are important - - but it is the RATE of change that is the most notable factor
  • Predicted: sometime by 2025 plus/minus a decade, we’ll see an ice free artic
  • Artic opening would provide a Northern Sea Route opportunity. Favorable outcome?
  • Mitigating Factor: Quarter of petroleum reserve are in the Artic – there will be an internationally organized assessment; there are many unresolved issues associated with ice melt in artic
  • Greenland melt continues to rise - - open bays, affecting native cultures; calving of ice sheet happening 4x faster than it was 25 years ago;  data coming from new satellite images.
  • What is the result  - - in addition to the ones already discussed, melting of ice caps is predicted to contribute to sea level rise
  • Map of Florida show areas subject to inundations w/ 1m of sea level rise

Tipping Points…

  • A tipping point is an abrupt change that permanently alters the course (no swinging back to previous state)
  • Examples:
    • Bark Beetle
    • Coastal Barrier Island Russia/Alaska - - storms and absence of winter ice.  Ice protected barrier islands is gone; severity of the storm is increasing.  Results in drastic change in island area and impacts/ devastates native villages that have inhabited the islands
    • Wildfires North of Brooks Range in Alaska - -started by a thunderstorm, which was the first reported
    • Polar Bears - - (Lynn Scarlett covered some of this in her presentation)

Insights for the Northeast

  • Even in region small as northeast – there has been drastic regional variability in temperature change: regionality is important
  • Changes in Forest Type – models predict general changes to more southern species composition
  • Models predict general warming - - but, around 2050 the model predictions begin to differ drastically

For thinking about the issue:  Pentagon diagram (see slide)
Overall, we’re moving about of the area of historic variability

What to Do?  Develop a 25-40 year Adaptive Plan

  • Set the geographical context
  • Set the time scale
  • Downscale – use a smaller-scale landscape area to analyze changes - -
    • Two approaches to downscaling
      • Dynamic – high level of detail model
      • Statistical – go back to historic records, set model starting 30 years ago and calibrate at current level -- - and then project out
    • If it is climate connected landuse change - - you can use downscaling to develop predictions
    • Downscaling analyses have projected substantial climate changes across US, and those predictions similar to other climate change prediction models
    • Gives people way to visualize - - e.g. climate of MA will be like living in SC by 2099
  • 4 Quad Analysis
    • 4 main factors:
      • Governance
      • Socio/environmental
      • Policy
      • Processes
    • Results in 4 different scenarios that can be described and assessed
  • Controlling Projections
    • Tease out key projections
  • Craft and implement long range adaptive management plan to address long-term goal

Goal: increase detail and robustness in projections

CONCLUSSION: Climate change is not just an environmental issues, but economic and ultimately it is about the well-being of the human race.


Q1: How do you create institutions that are resilient to change?  What are the characteristics?
Plan for the “coming game” – project change and develop mechanisms and priorities to address those changes; build resilience
Ask what are the institutions that we need to put in place now to allow society to respond to projected changes

Q2: What is the Heinz Center doing to foster local and regional scale actions?
(Dennis _________ responds) – looking at smaller scale analysis – 1 KM.  Working with various sites to assess vulnerabilities, address risk, and develop mitigations strategies.

Q3: What are the changes that need to happen in the academic world to train people to make substantial contributions to the challenges that we’ll face?
The 4 major professions are not in the position to prepare graduates for that 2025 world
Engineering - - not really happening
Biz Schools – starting to awaken
Law – none/ not many addressing; some good environmental law schools, but few expanding to address climate change
Medicine - - waking up to really substantial health issues at stake.  E.g. See migrations of new insects into Alaska that never existed before. 

Q4: Time is not on our side.  Adaptation that will be performed will not be federal, but a lot may be non-federal (tribes, NGO’s land trusts).  How does the federal government help to facilitate the overall adaptations that need to and will happen?
Information issue - -need to build coalitions across barriers of agencies

Q5: You showed evidence that sea ice is melting/calving more rapidly than we ever expected. And other examples shows that science is conservative compared to what we are seeing.  Can you provide any examples of things happening at a slower rate?
Most evidence suggests that we in the science community are conservative.  We want to make sure we have sufficient scientific information before making determinations, and use very conservative estimates when we do.


For a disk with many of these presentations, contact
Richard O. Bennett, Ph.D.
Regional Science Advisor
Northeast Region
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Last updated: December 16, 2011