Regardless of the current weather transpiring outside of your window in your corner of the world, global climate change has occurred. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2016 set a record as the warmest year on record, and 16 of the 17 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since 2001. Winters have been growing shorter, with effects being particularly noticeable in the western United States. Sea level has risen as a result of melting land ice, and droughts and floods have become more severe over the course of the last century. These trends are projected to increase in intensity over the next 80 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their current rate.
Naturally, these changes are having an impact on the world’s fish and wildlife. As species struggle to keep up with climate change-driven habitat loss, the range diffusion of pests and diseases, and the shifts in timing of natural events (like the blooming of trees and flowers, or the availability of food in the form of hatched insects), scientists believe that they will be forced out of their native habitats.
But amidst this mountain of grim projections and reports is a glimmer of hope.
A 2014 paper that reports on a portion of an eight-year study conducted by The Nature Conservancy analyzed 237 million acres across the southeastern states for areas with the capacity to adapt to climate change while maintaining diversity and ecological function. Specifically, climate change strongholds were identified among the high elevation forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
“The kind of sites we identified were those with a complex landscape that contained a lot of micro-climates—mountains, valleys, slopes, caves, et cetera,” said Mark Anderson, one of the authors of the report and the Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy. Such landscapes allow slow-moving species like plants and amphibians to adjust to a changing climate by moving up or down in elevation as opposed to hundreds of miles in latitude to find favorable conditions as their traditional habitats change.
The study also evaluated sites based on permeability—the presence of roads, pipelines, and other barriers to movement within the site—and contiguity with other strongholds. Both of these criteria were present in the southeastern sites, largely because of their occurrence on federally protected lands.
While the Nature Conservancy study is a glimmer of hope, it is a momentary one. What it is not is an excuse for complacency. “Unfortunately,” said Anderson, “there will be many species that will not be able to relocate as climate change makes their neighborhoods unlivable. That is why 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 safety net to allow many species to survive, interact and ensure healthy natural systems.”
The authors of the study point out that an influx of pollution and development threaten the existence of healthy natural systems in these resilient landscapes, and the clean water and natural resources they provide, which will become increasingly valuable if current climate predictions transpire. For where there are not strongholds, there are fragile, vulnerable ecosystems and people that live there.
One such climate prediction came via a NASA study published in 2015 that suggests that, if carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase on their current trend throughout the remainder of the 21st Century, it’s likely that a drought worse than the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression era will grip Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern U.S. and Great Plains states and last for more than three decades. Conversely, if greenhouse gas emissions level off now, the chance of a mega-drought sits at a lowly 12%.
Further research has estimated that, due to projected sea level rise, as many as 13.1 million Americans could be displaced from their homes by the end of the century. These refugees will likely move inland, and with the rest of the country steeped in drought, areas of relative climate resiliency, such as southern Appalachia, top the list of places to settle.
Faced with a growing number of people in a reduced space, land-use conflicts will arise, and governments may be forced to sell off public lands to satisfy housing demands, placing further strain on natural climate change refugia, such as those found in southern Appalachia.
And so it is pretty clear that, if we want to preserve the health of our landscapes and natural systems, we must work to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels. Global climate change is not a local issue effecting only those physically displaced by nature. It is a global issue that is and will continue to have predictable and unpredictable effects on every corner of the planet.