As temperatures rise, humans and nature will both have to adapt

Living on Earth

Many scientists think there’s no longer a question how much the Earth’s temperature will rise, but rather, a question of by how much.

Frank Lowenstein, climate adaptation strategy leader for The Nature Conservancy, said we’ve already seen increased precipitation and temperatures on a global basis.

“Those two trends are going to continue,” Lowenstein said. We’re also going to see an increase in climate extremes. So, although precipitation is going to increase on a global basis, there may be places that get very dry and other places that get very wet.”

Other changes that can be expected include more, bigger hurricanes and more, stronger thunderstorms.

“A new article just out suggests that by the end of the century there will be a doubling of the frequency of severe thunderstorm conditions on the East Coast of the U.S.,” Lowenstein said.

But Lowenstein’s job isn’t merely to bemoan the falling skies; his job is to identify ways we can adapt and cope. The most urgent step is to begin thinking about the changes and begin to consider it in our local, state and national plans, he said. 

“The Nature Conservancy believes that natural ecosystems have a very important role to play in helping us to adapt,” he said. “We need to preserve key ecosystems that are providing services to people, which we may not even be aware of, that are helping us to adapt today.”

For example, Lowenstein said that the city of Boston gets its drinking water from the Quabbin Reservoir, which is kept clean by a forest that surrounds it. As precipitation increases along the east coast, more trees may be needed to keep the reservoir clear and clean for drinking, he said.

In the southwest United States, people are already taking action. The National Forests there are critical to ensuring clean water goes to Phoenix, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

“Last spring with the wildfires that took place that were so dramatic in the desert Southwest and which, again, are in line with what we’re expecting more of with climate change in that region, there was massive erosion of sediment and charcoal into the rivers that provide the water supply for Albuquerque,” he said.

So now they’re looking at revising the management plan for the forests to try and combat wild fires. One idea is to have larger trees farther apart, to discourage wildfires from spreading. It also helps the forests capture more snow and therefore generate more water.

The Nature Conservancy is also trying to imagine how cities must change as coasts change because of rising oceans and intense coastal storms.

“Is it going to whack your local hospital? Is it going to affect your evacuation routes, your roads that you need to get people out of the way of hurricanes? Which houses are most vulnerable?” Lowenstein asked. “So all of these are questions that people need to know to start planning, and that should affect local zoning.”

The conservancy has been gathering satellite imagery to help inform that process.

Lowenstein said the animals and plants are already ahead of humans, with animals moving north and plants changing when they flower.

“Sometimes we’re going to get in the way of that,” he said. “You know, if you’re an owl, if your habitat has moved 100 miles north, you can fly over a city to that new habitat. If you’re a snail, that’s a tougher task.”

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