A new study by The Nature Conservancy has identified a series of landscapes across Ohio that are predicted to withstand the growing impacts of climate change and help ensure nature’s survival.
As droughts, rising temperatures and other climate impacts threaten to destabilize natural areas across the United States and around the world, scientists believe these resilient landscapes will continue to serve as habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals while also providing drinking water, fertile soil and other important natural services that people rely upon.
“This new science gives us hope that – with a little help – nature and its diversity will survive,” said Bill Stanley, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy Ohio. “If we work to keep these special landscapes strong, for example by managing invasive species, they will continue to thrive even as our climate changes.”
Stanley added: “These strongholds will serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plants and animals that otherwise may be unable to find habitat due to climate change. They could also serve as essential sources for water and wood as society deals with the threats of climate change.”
“Protecting the most important sites we’ve identified and connecting them together is one of our best strategies for ensuring that we continue to have a rich diversity of life in the region and all the benefits that nature provides to us,” said Kim Hall, a Conservancy climate change ecologist who worked on the study.
Among the most resilient landscapes found in southern Ohio were The Nature Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve, Shawnee State Forest and the Little Miami River / Ft. Ancient State Park area.
“We’ve always known that these were special places,” said Stanley. “Now we know that these lands play a critical role in keeping nature across Ohio and beyond strong and healthy in the face of climate change.”
Other resilient landscapes identified by the study were Great Lakes islands and shoreline, northern forests, karst areas spared by glaciers, prairie and wetland complexes and flat to gently rolling hills with steep bluffs bordering the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois river valleys. Only eight percent of the land in the region is protected, while 60 percent has been converted to farmland or development.
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 ability for local movement define a landscape’s resiliency.
Later this year, the Conservancy will identify important corridors that link these resilient landscapes together. Government agencies and nonprofit groups are expected to use the resulting maps to guide their conservation efforts. “It’s not enough to have isolated islands of these climate-resilient sites,” said Meredith Cornett, a Conservancy scientist who helped author the study. “We have to ensure that corridors connect them together. To survive the changing climate, some species will be able to relocate within their current environment. Others will need to move great distances to entirely new places. 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 Cornett added: “Unfortunately, many species won’t be able to relocate as climate change makes their neighborhoods unlivable. So, 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 safe harbor for the survival of many species and natural systems.”
Mark Anderson, a Conservancy scientist who has helped lead the natural strongholds studies, said the study’s findings should be used in combination with more detailed data and field validation. “This analysis doesn’t make decisions, instead, it provides estimates of resilience that should be integrated and interpreted with additional data to inform conservation decisions.”
The study of the Great Lakes and Tallgrass Prairie region in the Midwest was funded primarily through a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional funding provided by Nature Conservancy supporters. For an overview and additional information about the study, including a link to download the study, data and a mapping tool, go to http://maps.tnc.org/resilientland.