Reframing Climate Change Adaptation

Short Description

From the introduction to the report:

The need to respond to climate change.

According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, climate warming is unequivocal and impacts associated with climate change are occurring across the globe (IPCC, 2014). Alaska has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. over the past 60 years (Stewart et al. 2013).

On the Kenai Peninsula changes associated with climate change have been dramatic, and because of this, it was a featured case study in the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Partnership, 2012). Some alarming impacts mentioned in the case study include: over a 15 year period, the spruce bark beetle devastated four million acres of forest in south central Alaska including the Peninsula (Berg et al. 2006b); the treeline has risen 150 feet (Dial et al., 2007); available water has declined 55% and the area of wetlands has decreased by six-11% per decade (Berg et al., 2009). The fire regime has departed from the historical norm (Berg and Anderson, 2006), resulting in the State of Alaska recently moving the start date of its fire season from May 1 to April 1. These changes have already occurred.

Forward looking projections from spatial modeling done at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR) show further changes on the Kenai Peninsula. Biome shifts and change of land cover types on the western side of the Peninsula suggest catastrophic loss of forests in the Kenai lowlands, conversion of alpine tundra to forest, among other changes (Hollingsworth et al., In review). At the same time, the eastern side of the Peninsula is projected to stay relatively stable as a coastal rainforest (Hollingsworth et al., In review), conveying that there may be less conservation need for having planned adaptation on the western side.

The Kenai Peninsula is an ideal laboratory to study climate change effects. The combination of geographic discreteness and intact ecosystems allows researchers to study climate change signals which are not masked by an anthropogenic footprint. As a result, research on the Kenai Peninsula is some of the most comprehensive in all Alaska. These same factors make the Peninsula an ideal laboratory to explore the effectiveness of various adaptation measures.

The climate change response to date: a lack of adaptation

Climate adaptation is a means for achieving conservation goals in a rapidly changing environment, not just a goal in and of itself (Game et al. 2010). Now, ecosystems are complex, dynamic systems with multiple possible trajectories (Chapin et al., 2009). Given current trends, conservation will need to be more open to anticipating and actively facilitating ecological transitions and place less emphasis on preservation and historical restoration (Millar et al. 2007, West et al. 2009, Link et al. 2010). In this context of change, some ecologists have begun to question whether managing natural landscapes using a historic reference point as a benchmark is a viable goal (Schroeder et al., 2004).

In this spirit, KNWR biologists are concerned that several vegetative cover types on the Kenai Peninsula are near a tipping point in which they may shift to new system states of lesser ecological diversity and/or function (Hollingsworth et al., In review). When systems are preparing to transition to a new state, there is a window of opportunity in which to steward or guide its trajectory (Olsson et al., 2006). KNWR biologists are exploring prospective versus retrospective options (Magness et al., 2011) to actively facilitate the trajectory of ecological transitions that may be occurring on the Kenai Peninsula. A critical issue is how to respond coherently across the landscape, and whether the will to respond exists amongst partners that manage land across the Peninsula.

Federal agencies have produced strategy documents in effort to address how to approach conservation in the face of climate change. Some examples include Climate-Smart Conservation (Stein et al. 2014), Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change (USFWS, 2010), Planning for climate change on the National Wildlife Refuge System (Czech et al., 2014), and Climate Change Response Strategy (National Park Service, 2010).

In addition to Federal mitigation and adaptation strategies, Kenai Peninsula based workshops and forums have been held to increase awareness about climate change. One participant in this study said, “Climate change in the header of some kind of a forum is becoming at least an annual occurrence.” Examples of these forums are described below. Classrooms for Climate was a symposium sharing implications of a changing climate on northern ecosystems and society. It was led by Chugach National Forest and University of Alaska Anchorage and happened in May 2011 in Anchorage, AK. The Climate Change Café happened in June 2011 in Cooper Landing, AK. This was one of a series of workshops hosted around the country by Colorado State University’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department in efforts to improve communication about climate change. Climate Change Planning in Alaska’s National Parks occurred in February 2011 in Anchorage, AK. It was led by National Park Service and University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning. It included other agencies and organizations and discussed how to manage southern region Alaska national parks in the face of climate change. Climate Change in our Backyard was hosted by the Central Peninsula League of Voters and Kenai Peninsula College in March 2015. The Alaska Climate Center (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service gave updates about their local findings on climate change.

Despite the apparent need to respond to climate change, the many workshops that have taken place, and the many climate strategies that have been created, no landscape-scale adaptation actions have been implemented to date on the Kenai Peninsula; a fact that was verified by all interview participants from this study, many of whom participated in one or more of the abovementioned workshops. It is true that the Regional Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Chugach National Forest and the Kenai Peninsula grew out of the Classrooms for Climate symposium. This effort, completed in 2014, assessed vulnerability of natural resources and landscapes within the Chugach National Forest and Kenai Peninsula to climate change. It was led by the U.S. Forest Service (Chugach National Forest) and the University of Anchorage, but included many other agencies and organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is a positive step towards enabling adaptation, but is not an example of adaptation itself.

Given the lack of adaptation as a response to climate change, KNWR staff believe that barriers exist to implementing adaptation measures across the Kenai Peninsula landscape. To date, actual response has taken the forms of public outreach and changes in facilities/maintenance to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but not on-the-ground adaptation at a landscape scale, and certainly not a coordinated effort. This report examines the barriers to implementing landscape scale climate change adaptation on the Kenai Peninsula. It provides four ways forward for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to increase the likelihood of success with its adaptation efforts.

Format and Retrieval

The full report can be download here.