Building a Decision-Support Tool for Assessing the Impacts of Climate and Land Use Change on Ecological Processes

Funding Amount and Duration:

$60,000 from July 1, 2016 - September 30, 2017

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Terry Sohl, USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center

Cooperators & Partners:

Rob Quenzer, Steve Wika, Kristi Sayler & Ryan Reker (USGS EROS)

About:

Scientists, planners, policy makers and other decision-makers in the South Central U.S. want to understand the potential impacts of changes in climate, precipitation, and land-use patterns on natural and cultural resources. Though the potential impacts of climate change can be modeled to help decision-makers plan for future conditions, these models rarely incorporate changes in land-use that may occur. Climate change and land-use change are often linked, as shifts in precipitation and temperature can alter patterns in human land-use activities, such as agriculture.

This project seeks to address this gap by developing new software tools that enable stakeholders to quickly develop custom, climate-sensitive land-use projections to satisfy a range of application needs. Stakeholders from across the region will participate in the development of the model through two workshops, designed to first gather stakeholder needs and then to apply and evaluate the model to ensure that it maximizes potential use across all stakeholder groups.

Users of the end-product will be able to build customized, scenario-based projections of landscape change, including landscape response to climate change, such as wildfires or altered vegetation patterns. The projections generated with these tools will enable decision-makers and land-use planners to visualize potential future landscapes, optimize land management practices, and adapt to negative impacts of climate and land-use change on ecological and economic systems.

Enhancing the Capacity of Coastal Wetlands to Adapt to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Development

Funding Amount and Duration:

$35,000 from April 1, 2016 - March 31, 2017

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Michael Osland, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

Cooperators & Partners:

Nicholas Enwright & Sinead Borchert, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

About:

Coastal wetlands provide a suite of valuable benefits to people and wildlife, including important habitat, improved water quality, reduced flooding impacts, and protected coastlines. However, in the 21st century accelerated sea-level rise and coastal development are expected to greatly alter coastal landscapes across the globe. The future of coastal wetlands is uncertain, challenging coastal environmental managers to develop conservation strategies that will increase the resilience of these valuable ecosystems to change and preserve the benefits they provide.

One strategy for preparing for the effects of sea-level rise is to ensure that there is space available for coastal wetlands to adapt by migration. In a recent study, researchers identified areas where coastal wetlands may move inland along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, one of the most wetland-rich and sea-level rise sensitive regions of the world. Building on these findings, this project will produce customized landscape conservation-design products focused on identifying landward migration routes for coastal wetlands. The resulting products will provide environmental managers with information to make decisions to enhance the capacity of coastal wetlands to adapt to sea-level rise and coastal development, protecting these ecosystems and the critical economic and ecological benefits that they provide.

Identifying Conservation Objectives for the Gulf Coast Habitats of the Black Skimmer and Gull-billed Tern

Funding Amount and Duration:

$ from April 1, 2016 - March 31, 2017

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Jointly funded by the South Central Climate Science Center and the Southeast Climate Science Center

Principal Investigators:

James Cronin, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

About:

Many shorebirds and nearshore waterbirds are of conservation concern across the Gulf of Mexico due to stressors such as human disturbance, predation, and habitat loss and degradation. Conservation and protection of these birds is important for the functioning of healthy ecosystems and for maintaining biodiversity in North America. Consequently, resource managers along the gulf need decision-aiding tools that can efficiently help to answer important conservation questions for different species (e.g. which areas and how much area should be targeted by management actions to meet a particular species’ needs).

To address this need, project researchers are developing statistical models that will help identify habitat conservation objectives and actions for bird species taking into account different gulf coast conservation scenarios that might occur in response to sea-level rise. The project will focus specifically on the Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) and Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), two species identified as representative of sustainable gulf habitats and designated as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species of Conservation Concern and Gulf Coast Joint Venture Priority Species. These two birds are also representative of a variety of other beach and barrier-island nesting birds whose nesting habitats are threatened by sea-level rise (e.g., Least Tern, Snowy and Wilson’s Plover). The statistical models will link each bird’s population abundance to habitat characteristics that could be influenced by different management actions and will use this information to identify conservation objectives under different conservation scenarios.

Understanding Future Fire Frequency and Impacts on Species Distribution in the South Central U.S.

Funding Amount and Duration:

$162,592 from July 1, 2014 - December 31, 2016

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Ester Stroh, USGS, Columbia Environmental Research Center (CERC)

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Michael Stambaugh, University of Missouri
  • Richard Guyette, University of Missouri
  • Matthew Struckhoff, USGS, CERC

About:

Fire is critical to maintaining and restoring temperate ecosystems in the South Central U.S. As precipitation patterns and temperatures change in the region, managers require information on how these changes will impact fire frequency, and thus the species and ecosystems within the landscape.

To address this need, researchers will use climate model data to predict and map future changes in fire frequency for Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Researchers will then examine species and ecosystem distribution data to understand the relationship between climate, fire frequency, and species occurrence. This analysis will enable researchers to identify potential future distributions of woody ecosystems and species such as mesquite and eastern red cedar.

The results of this project will help resource managers understand where on the landscape they can expect more frequent and less frequent fires due to changes in climate, and which areas may transition toward other ecosystem types as a result of these changing conditions. Information gathered from this project will assist planning for activities such as fuels management and prescribed fire over the long term.

Science to Address Future Conservation Practices for the Mississippi River Basin

Funding Amount and Duration:

$154,060 from May 28, 2014 - May 28, 2016

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Funded Jointly with the Northeast Climate Science Center

Principal Investigators:

Jack Waide, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Jason Rohweder & Timothy Fox, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center
  • Linda Prokopy, Purdue University
  • Meghna Babbar-Sebens, Oregon State University
  • Gwen White, Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers LCC

About:

USFWS Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) throughout the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) have identified high nutrient runoff, a major contributor to Gulf hypoxia, and declines in wildlife populations (especially grassland and riparian birds), as conservation challenges requiring collaborative action. This project will develop a spatial decision support system (DSS) to address these issues. The DSS will be designed to identify MRB watersheds where application of conservation practices can (1) reduce nutrient export to the Gulf hypoxia zone and (2) enhance conservation for grassland and riparian birds, based on (3) identifying landowners willing and capable of implementing these practices. The DSS will identify appropriate conservation practices to be implemented, and quantify resulting benefits for both nutrient export and bird habitat. The DSS will also enable analyses of whether landowner willingness to implement desired practices is affected by perceptions of climate extremes. This project has support and includes contributions from LCCs and agencies throughout the MRB, including federal and state resource management agencies and universities. The project, a pilot for a larger future effort, seeks to move current conservation approaches to a more strategic level, by identifying where to locate projects in critical watersheds for the greatest overall conservation benefit.

Using an Ecosystem Services Framework to Examine the Social, Economic and Ecological Tradeoffs of Different Water Management Scenarios In the Kiamichi River Watershed

Funding Amount and Duration:

$23,520 from November 1, 2013 - April 30, 2014

Funding Source:

  • University of Oklahoma

Principal Investigators:

  • Vaughn, Caryn (OU)

About:

Freshwater is vital for both humans and fish and wildlife, but humans are using freshwater more rapidly than it can be replenished. The Kiamichi River watershed in southeastern Oklahoma is at the center of intense conflict over water ownership and use. Missing from these disputes are the needs of the watershed’s rich animal and plant life, including three federally endangered freshwater mussels. Ecosystem services (i.e. benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems) have received increasing attention by both scientists and policy makers as a means to incorporate the multiple benefits that humans receive from natural ecosystems into land management policy and decisions. Rivers and the organisms that inhabit them provide many essential ecosystem services to people such as provisioning services (e.g. water for consumption and agriculture), regulating services (e.g. nutrient processing and water purification), and cultural services (e.g. recreation and spiritual values). This project uses an ecosystem services framework to examine how different water management/environmental flow scenarios in the Kiamichi River watershed affect the delivery of ecosystem services, and thus contribute to the wellbeing of people living both in and outside the watershed. Our approach involves mapping the spatial delivery of a selection of watershed services, and then exploring the tradeoffs between their biophysical, sociocultural and economic values. Once these tasks are completed we can then examine the tradeoffs between different water management strategies and share our results with policy makers and managers.

Modeling the Effects of Climate and Land Use Change on Crucial Wildlife Habitat

Funding Amount and Duration:

$277,704 from September 1, 2013 - September 1, 2015

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Colleen Caldwell, New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
  • Kenneth Boykin, New Mexico State University
  • Keith Dixon, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Virgina Seamster, New Mexico State University
  • Esteban Muldavin, Rayo McCollough, & Terri Neville, Natural Heritage NM

About:

Project Poster

Publication: Projected Future Bioclimate-Envelope Suitability for Reptile and Amphibian Species of Concern in South Central USA

Publication: Projections of Future Suitable Bioclimatic Conditions of Parthenogenetic Whiptails

Publication: Modeling the impacts of climate change on Species of Concern (birds) in South Central U.S. based on bioclimatic variables

Changing temperature and precipitation patterns in the South Central U.S are already having an impact on wildlife. Hotter and drier conditions are prompting some species to move in search of cooler conditions, while other species are moving into warmer areas that were once unsuitable for them. These changes in the distribution of wildlife populations present challenges for wildlife managers, hunters, tribal communities, and others who are making decisions about wildlife stewardship.

This project examined the effect of shifting climate conditions on 20 species of conservation concern in the South Central United States. These species, which include the black-tailed prairie dog and the lesser prairie-chicken, were selected according to several criteria, including their expected sensitivity to climatic change. Researchers examined where these species currently occur in order to better understand the environmental, especially climate, conditions necessary for their survival. Climate and land use change projections for 2050 and 2070 were used to assess the potential future distributions of conditions suitable for these species.

Maps evaluating patterns of loss of suitable conditions for the species were developed and incorporated into the publicly accessible New Mexico state-level CHAT (Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool). CHATs are being used by states across the western U.S. to facilitate conservation and project planning, and are useful to decision-makers at all levels of government. Therefore, incorporating information about the potential impact of climate and land use change on species distributions into this tool will ensure that this important information is accessible to managers.

Predicting Sky Island Forest Vulnerability to Climate Change: Fine Scale Climate Variability, Drought Tolerance, and Fire Response

Funding Amount and Duration:

$99,937 from July 15, 2013 - July 15, 2015

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Dylan Schwilk and Scott Holaday, Texas Tech University

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Helen Poulos, Poulos Environmental Consulting, LLC
  • Anne Stoner, Texas Tech University

About:

Publication: Post-fire resprouting oaks (genus: Quercus) exhibit plasticity in xylem vulnerability to drought

The Sky Island forests of the southwestern United States are one of the most diverse temperate forest ecosystems in the world, providing key habitat for migrating and residential species alike. Black bear, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and wild turkey are just a few of the species found in these isolated mountain ecosystems that rise out of the desert landscape. However, recent droughts have crippled these ecosystems, causing significant tree death. Climate predictions suggest that this region will only face hotter and drier conditions in the future, potentially stressing these ecosystems even further. Simple models predict that vegetation will move to cooler and wetter locations in response to this warming. However, species responses will likely be more complex than these models show, as vegetation navigates other ecological stressors such as elevation change and water availability.

In order to better predict how vegetation will move in response to future warming, a more robust understanding of how drought and temperature impact tree survival is needed. Focusing on three Sky Island habitats in western Texas, this project will identify the key traits influencing current distributions of forest tree species, determine the susceptibility of these species to drought and temperature, and develop fine-scale, localized climate projections that model future conditions for the study area. This information will then be used to predict how species might shift location in response to warmer and drier future climates, enabling managers to make more robust decisions that will preserve Sky Island forests in the face of a changing climate.

Understanding the Nexus between Climate, Streamflow, Water Quality, and Ecology in the Arkansas-Red River Basin

Funding Amount and Duration:

$422,730 from July 1, 2013 - July 1, 2015

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Trevor Grout, Christopher Harich, & Bill Andrews, USGS

Cooperators & Partners:

  • University of Oklahoma
  • Oklahoma State University

About:

Currently, maintaining appropriate flows to support biological integrity is difficult for larger riverine ecosystems. Climate change, through increased temperature, reduced rainfall, and increased rainfall intensity, is expected to reduce water availability and exacerbate the maintenance of ecological flows in the Arkansas-Red River basin. Understanding the nexus among climate change effects on streamflow, water quality, and stream ecology for watersheds in the Arkansas-Red River Basin can be achieved using currently existing science and technology. This nexus approach will strengthen adaptive-management strategies that focus on shared ecosystem conservation watershed targets. This approach will provide natural-resource managers operating over a variety of spatial scales with measureable relationships between biology and flow while building modeling, monitoring, and statistical capacity to support restoration, conservation, and management goals.

Establishing a Foundation for Understanding Climate Impacts on Coastal Wetland Ecosystems

Funding Amount and Duration:

$257,500 from June 1, 2013 - June 1, 2015

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Michael Osland, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

Cooperators & Partners:

  • James B. Grace, Camillie L. Stagg, Richard H. Day, & Stephen B. Hartley, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

About:

Publication: Macroclimatic change expected to transform coastal wetland ecosystems this century

Publication: Freshwater availability and coastal wetland foundation species: ecological transitions along a rainfall gradient

Publication: Beyond just sea-level rise: considering macroclimatic drivers within coastal wetland vulnerability assessments to climate change

Publication: Mangrove expansion and contraction at a poleward range limit: climate extremes and land-ocean temperature gradients

Publication: Climatic controls on the global distribution, abundance, and species richness of mangrove forests

Coastal wetlands are one of the most economically valuable ecosystems in the world. In the United States, the ecosystem services provided by wetlands are worth billions of dollars and include flood protection, erosion control, seafood, water quality enhancement, carbon storage, recreation, and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are also highly sensitive to changing climate conditions. Past research on climate impacts to coastal wetlands have concentrated primarily on sea-level rise, largely ignoring the important influence of changing temperature and precipitation patterns. Understanding the impact of temperature and precipitation on coastal wetlands can help natural and cultural resource managers account for these factors when making decisions or developing adaptation plans.

This study advances understanding of how temperature and precipitation influence coastal wetland ecosystems. The study models the relationships between wetland plant community structure and climate in the northern Gulf of Mexico and identifies potential impacts of future climate conditions on these ecosystems. The researchers identify critical ecological thresholds and demonstrate that transformative ecological changes due to climatic shifts are probable throughout the Gulf of Mexico within this century. In certain areas, small changes in temperature or rainfall are expected to trigger large ecological changes and affect certain ecosystem services. Because coastal wetland ecosystems in other parts of the world are also sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall, the findings of this research have global implications, helping to inform the management of these highly valuable ecosystems under a changing climate.

Evaluating the Impacts of Climate Extremes on Karst Hydrology and Species Vulnerability

Funding Amount and Duration:

$40,000 from October 1, 2012 - December 31, 2013

Funding Source:

US Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

Barbara J. Mahler, USGS Texas Water Science Center

About:

Project Fact Sheet

Project Webinar

USGS Report: Historical and projected climate (1901–2050) and hydrologic response of karst aquifers, and species vulnerability in south-central Texas and western South Dakota

Model Description: RRAWFLOW: Rainfall-Response Aquifer and Watershed Flow Model (v1.15)

Publication: Holocene climate variability in Texas, USA: An integration of existing paleoclimate data and modeling with a new, high-resolution speleothem record

Publication: Dissolved oxygen fluctuations in karst spring flow and implications for endemic species: Barton Springs, Edwards aquifer, Texas, USA

Publication: Prediction, time variance, and classification of hydraulic response to recharge in two karst aquifers

Karst aquifers—formed when the movement of water dissolves bedrock—are critical groundwater resources in North America. Water moving through these aquifers carves out magnificent caves, sinkholes, and other formations. These formations are home to high concentrations of rare and endangered species, but the hydrological conditions that support these species can change rapidly. Managing these ecosystems into the future requires a better understanding of how climate, hydrology, and karst ecosystems interact.

The objective of this project was to determine how species and ecosystems associated with karst might respond to future temperature and precipitation extremes and accompanying changes in groundwater levels and springflow. The research focused on 16 species in the Edwards aquifer in south-central Texas and eight species in the Madison aquifer in western South Dakota. Researchers linked global climate models, regional climate models, and hydrologic models to determine how future springflow might be impacted by changes in temperature and precipitation. By combining information about future hydrology with what we know about species needs, researchers determined the vulnerability of the selected species to climate extremes.

Researchers found that more species in the Edwards aquifer are vulnerable to climate extremes than in the Madison aquifer, due in part to the more severe hydrologic changes that the Edwards aquifer is expected to undergo. This result suggests that including hydrologic factors critical to species health is essential in evaluating the vulnerability of karst ecosystems to climate extremes. Natural resource managers can use this information to understand how the character of karst systems are changing and prioritize conservation activities accordingly.

Assessing the Potential Impact of Sea-Level Rise on Submerged Aquatic Vegetation and Waterfowl in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Funding Amount and Duration:

$267,209 from September 1, 2012 - August 30, 2014

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey

Principal Investigators:

  • Megan La Peyre, USGS Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Andy Nyman, LSU
  • Mike Poirrier, Univ. of New Orleans
  • Brady Couvillion, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center
  • Joy Merino, NMFS
  • Mike Brasher, Ducks Unlimited, Gulf Coast Joint Venture
  • Stephen DeMaso, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Gulf Coast Joint Venture
  • Barry Wilson, Gulf Coast Joint Venture

About:

Publication: Establishing a Baseline of Estuarine Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Resources Across Salinity Zones Within Coastal Areas of the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Publication: Brackish Marsh Zones as a Waterfowl Habitat Resource in Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Beds in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) communities are highly productive ecosystems that provide significant ecological benefits to coastal areas, including essential caloriesfor wintering waterfowl. However, the potential effects of sea-level rise is posing new questions about the future availability of SAV for waterfowl and other coastal wildlife. Of primary concern is the fact that rising seas have the potential to increase salinities in fresh and brackish marshes on the Gulf of Mexico’s coast, changing the distribution and composition of SAV communities, and affecting valuable waterfowl habitat and food resources. Not enough is known about the relationship between salinity and SAV to predict how this important food resource will respond to higher salinity levels, creating difficulties for waterfowl conservation planning.

This project identified the relationship between SAV, salinity, and other environmental variables as a first step in understanding how sea-level rise might affect food availability for waterfowl. The study examined coastal marshes of the northern Gulf of Mexico from Mobile Bay, AL, to the Nueces River, TX. Researchers compared SAV distribution and composition across a range of salinity levels, and found that water depth and salinity were the primary factors in determining the amount of SAV resources in a particular marsh. Surprisingly, researchers also found that brackish marsh tended to produce quantities of SAV waterfowl food resources similar to those in fresh marsh environments. The study also found some evidence that saline marshes contain less waterfowl food resources than brackish, intermediate, and fresh marshes.

This work will directly benefit efforts of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, Gulf Coast Prairies Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), and Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks LCC in forecasting the effects of sea-level rise on the distribution, abundance, and diversity of SAV resources and the priority fish and wildlife populations that depend upon them.

Mapping Fresh, Intermediate, Brackish and Saline Marshes in the North Central Gulf of Mexico Coast to Inform Future Projections

Funding Amount and Duration:

$150,000 from July 1, 2012 - June 30, 2014

Funding Source:

  • U.S. Geological Survey 

Principal Investigators:

  • Stephen B. Hartley, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

Cooperators & Partners:

  • Brady Couvillion, Nicholas M. Enwright, & William R. Jones, USGS
  • Mike Brasher, Gulf Coast Joint Venture and Ducks Unlimited
  • Barry Wilson, Gulf Coast Joint Venture and US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Jenneke Visser, UL-Lafayette
  • Bart Ballard, TAMU Kingsville

About:

Map: Delineation of marsh types from Corpus Christi Bay, Texas, to Perdido Bay, Alabama, in 2010

Map: Vegetation types in coastal Louisiana in 2013

Publication: Delineation of marsh types of the Texas coast from Corpus Christi Bay to the Sabine River in 2010

Spatial data depicting marsh types (e.g. fresh, intermediate, brackish and saline) for the north-central Gulf of Mexico coast are inconsistent across the region, limiting the ability of conservation planners to model the current and future capacity of the coast to sustain priority species. The goal of this study is to (1) update the resolution of coastal Texas vegetation data to match that of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and (2) update vegetation maps for the Texas through Alabama region using current Landsat Imagery. Creating consistent regional vegetation maps will enable scientists to model vegetation response to and potential impacts of future climate change.