Climate Change

Climate changes impact wilderness lands by altering temperature, precipitation, and species composition. These changes will accelerate into the future, making management of these lands more complex and protecting wilderness character more difficult. ALWRI scientists and partnership in wilderness organizations and at universities have a number of important climate change projects underway. Below is a short overview of each.

  1. Determining how temperature and precipitation will change on wilderness lands: We are evaluating the impact of current and future changes in temperature and precipitation on wilderness lands and providing an index of the magnitude of these changes projected by ecoregion. This will help managers to easily determine which lands will experience the greatest changes. It will also be used to make assessments of impacts to local and regional ecological function.

  2. Assessing ecosystem representation: We are also assessing the ecosystems represented in the National Wilderness Preservation System for ecological diversity and determining, based on roadless areas and other lands that are eligible to be designated as wilderness, where ecosystem representation could be increase in the current wilderness system. We evaluate connectivity of ecosystem types so that where temperature and precipitation change our analyses can identify migration pathways for the species in wilderness.

  3. Mapping current and future fire regimes in the western US: We are modeling and mapping fire frequency and severity in the western US under contemporary and future climate. Fire and climate data from wilderness and other protected areas are proving to be an invaluable resource for making inferences outside of these protected areas. This is an excellent example of “wilderness for science” and how projects conducted using data from wilderness are applicable to lands of other management designations. This project is funded through FY15 but we seek a small amount of funding in FY16 ($15,000) to complete this important work.

  4. Ecoregional assessment of climate extremes in the contiguous US: We are quantifying whether or not climate is becoming more extreme. Using daily temperature and precipitation records from ~1500 weather stations in the contiguous US, we are evaluating if extremes in daily maximum temperature, minimum temperature, and precipitation are more prevalent now than historically. Results will be summarized per ecoregion to gain a better perspective of geographic patterns in any potential extremes. For example, preliminary results indicate that the southwestern US is less prone to extreme weather compared to other regions in the contiguous US. This project is highly underfunded; we seek $30,000/year to complete this work.

  5. A tool to help managers decide whether restoration actions are needed: Developing a decision framework for restoration actions in wilderness is another major project ALWRI scientists are developing for federal wilderness managers. Climate change impacts wilderness in many ways that make potential restoration action necessary in order to protect these lands, as required by law, in their “natural condition” (i.e. species, patterns, and processes that evolved in the area) while minimizing the impacts of restoration actions (e.g. assisted migration, altering natural genetics of a species, changing species composition to more resilient species. This framework will facilitate informed decision-making by emphasizing the need to ask the right set of questions to evaluate the effects of restoration actions on wilderness character. In addition, this framework will be: comprehensive and systematic, providing a structured basis to evaluate criteria involving law and policy, ecological understandings, and ethical considerations; broadly applicable, by being relevant across the country to all NWPS agencies and units; and, flexible, to allow for modification to reflect local thinking and values regarding wilderness and restoration.

  6. A coarse-filter climate change vulnerability assessment for North America: We are using innovative and novel approaches to identify climate change “vulnerability” for each square km in North America. This project will extend the theoretical and practical framework of climate change vulnerability assessments by explicitly accounting for connectivity between climate domains and change in area of isotherms through time. This analysis will result in a spatially explicit map of climate change vulnerability for North America. This map will be overlaid with designated wilderness, depending on funding availability, to identify which areas are most vulnerable to climate change. This project is highly underfunded; we seek $25,000/year to complete this work.

  7. Water from wilderness: Assessing climate change impacts on the provisioning of water from wilderness lands. Wilderness is an important source of water. It is estimated that FS wilderness lands provide 35% of the water used by the US for drinking water and industry. ALWRI social science team efforts (cooperative with The University of Montana, Shoshone National Forest, Crow Agency and Wind River Reservation) to understand climate change and land use change influence on the flow of ecosystem services from lands and water protected for wilderness characteristics. We are modeling effects on these services in the future. Current analysis is designed to understand the relative values of threatened ecosystem services due to climate change influences on flow of water from protected and unprotected landscapes.