Science and Technology News

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fish and Wildlife Face Significant Risks as the Climate Changes

March 30, 2010 - Our nation’s fish and wildlife are expected to be significantly impacted now and in the future as the climate continues to fluctuate.

New research will help understand future climate conditions and impacts to species and their habitats. Projects include studies of alterations in Florida’s ecosystems, potential impacts on Great Lakes’ fish, sea-level rise impacts on San Francisco Bay marshes, and the effects of melting glaciers on Alaska’s freshwater coastal systems.

“The U.S. Geological Survey has funded 17 new projects through the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center,” said USGS Associate Director for Biology Susan Haseltine. “Our future holds new climate conditions and new habitat responses, and managers need projections based on sound science to assess how our landscapes may change and to develop effective response strategies for species survival.”

Several projects are summarized below, and descriptions of all projects can be found on the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center Web site.

Preserving Florida’s Unique Land

Florida has diverse ecosystems and a unique climate. To understand how it will fare in the face of climate change, scenarios must be developed that consider this uniqueness. USGS scientists are doing just that by creating Florida-specific models regarding which species and habitats will increase or decline based on potential rainfall and temperature change as well as impacts of human-induced land use and land cover change.

What’s the Future for Great Lakes Fish?

The Great Lakes support a multi-billion-dollar fishing and tourism industry, but little is known on how climate change could affect their fish species. USGS scientists and collaborators are updating models to predict 50 to 100 years in the future how water level, water temperatures and ice cover will change in the Great Lakes. Scientists will explore how warmer water temperatures may affect fish growth and consumption rates and forecast algal production and fish variability in Lakes Michigan and Huron.

San Francisco Bay Marshes under Siege

San Francisco Bay marshes are at risk from sea-level rise, storms, altered salinities, changes in sediment loads and more. This threatens plant communities and species such as the salt marsh harvest mouse, California clapper rail and California black rail, which are all listed as either federally endangered or threatened. USGS scientists are developing models for this area to predict sea-level rise, effects on species and habitats, and whether marshes can grow at sustainable rates.

Climate on the Move: Where Will It Go

What if managers could map where climate conditions will likely occur in the future? Or visualize how habitats will respond and move? USGS scientists are working to make this happen, helping to protect our nation’s natural resources. They are creating climate models for North America and smaller scaled models for the contiguous United States and Alaska. Data will be incorporated into an online Web interface where managers can download information and produce maps of future climate conditions.

Camouflage Trying to Keep Up with Climate Change

Many species undergo a seasonal change of coat color to match the presence or absence of snow. As the climate changes and snowpack declines, species may have white coats on non-snowy backgrounds. One species impacted by this is the snowshoe hare, which are prey for the federally threatened Canada lynx. Animals could face population decline or respond by adapting or moving. USGS scientists are tracking snowshoe hares to evaluate their responses, using data to make projections for the next 30 to 50 years.

Are Melting Glaciers Disturbing Alaska’s Flow?

As the climate changes and glaciers melt, the flow of freshwater in the Gulf of Alaska is altered, and impacts are felt across coastal ecosystems. For example, fish feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton and these organisms could be negatively affected as increased water flows bring higher levels of iron and nitrate. Scientists are studying these processes and impacts, with particular focus on the Copper River, which relies on nearby mountain glaciers and is the Gulf’s largest freshwater source.

Trout and Salmon at Risk in the West

Some native trout and salmon populations in the western United States are at risk for extinction, with many proposed for or listed under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery of these species is a challenge as climate change is likely to raise water temperatures, alter wildfire occurrences, and increase demand for water resources. USGS scientists are studying how climate change will influence fish habitats and providing data to managers to help them assess extinction risks and develop appropriate response strategies.

Islands and Seabirds Faced with Sea-Level Rise

As the climate continues to change, sea-level rise may inundate coastal and low elevation Pacific islands. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide habitat for the largest assemblage of tropical seabirds in the world (14 million birds and 22 species) and 11 endangered species of terrestrial birds and plants. Even small increases in sea level may result in critical habitat loss. USGS scientists are mapping current species distribution and identifying the areas and species that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Thirsty Plants in the Arid Southwest

A warmer climate can bring dryer conditions, threatening plant species in the arid southwestern United States as well as the wildlife that depend on these plants for habitat and food. USGS scientists will expand on existing models that outline climate change impacts to plant populations and include up to 30 plant species. Focus will be placed on plants supporting wildlife of greatest concern. These models will also be used to project changes in wildlife populations.

The National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and other scientific programs elements of the USGS will work closely with eight regional Climate Science Centers being established by the Department of the Interior. These centers will provide scientific information, tools and techniques needed to manage land, water, wildlife and cultural resources in the face of climate change. The USGS and the DOI centers will also work closely with a network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in which federal, state, tribal and other managers and scientists will develop conservation, adaptation and mitigation strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change.

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