Natural Resource Protection

Statement For The Record
U.S. Geological Survey
Department Of The Interior
Before The
Senate Committee On Environment And Public Works
Subcommittee On Oversight

Natural Resource Adaption: Protecting Ecosystems And Economies 

February 25, 2014

The USGS has played a key role in advancing climate change science since long before there was such a discipline. The USGS works closely with partners from all levels of Government, the private and non-profit sectors, and even individual citizens to ensure that our research informs decisions for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Some of our work, such as our base maps of landscapes and watersheds, go back to our founding 130 years ago. A number of our streamgages have been measuring streamflow for over 100 years. The archive of Landsat mid-resolution land imagery goes back over 40 years and is the longest such continuous record. Hundreds of partners rely on our expertise in collecting and interpreting exceptional data sets about the Earth and its processes. It is our perspective that such data should be the starting point of any discussion of global climate change.

Through ongoing collection of data, we are developing a better understanding of the patterns of that change and its impacts on critical natural resources. (“Global change” is sometimes used more generally to describe change in climate, land use and land cover, ecosystems, and human society. For our purposes today, “climate change” and “global change” are the same.) “Stressors,” “drivers,” and “inputs” are the factors affecting an Earth system. Changes in one system have impacts that in turn alter other systems; current research is investigating the nature of these feedbacks.

Climate Change Impacts

Global climate change is affecting weather, plants and animals, ecosystems and agriculture, and infrastructure. The most recent decade was the warmest on record for the United States, and the number of annual frost-free days has been increasing since the 1980s. Overall precipitation has increased for the country, and the timing and intensity of precipitation events have also changed, resulting in increased seasonal flooding and drought for several U.S. regions.

Climate change affects at what elevation pine trees grow, how far north reptiles can survive, when flowers bloom, when snow stops and rain begins, how long bears hibernate, and how quickly a virus can spread.  Such climate-influenced changes in ecosystems have both direct and indirect effects on human health and livelihoods, including impacts to food production from fisheries, pollination, storm surge protection provided by coastal habitats, clean water, and recreational and tourism opportunities.

A specific example is the change in the fire regime of the western United States. Warmer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier onset of springtime are leading to increased wildfire activity in a region that has already experienced extended drought over the past decades. Warmer winter conditions allow naturally occurring bark beetles to breed more frequently and successfully, and the dead trees left behind by these beetles make extensive crown fires more likely. In 2011, the Las Conchas wildfire in New Mexico resulted in the loss of vegetation that would otherwise decrease erosion from hillsides. Sediment and ash eroded by post-fire floods were washed downstream into the Rio Grande, which supplies 50% of the drinking water for Albuquerque.  Water withdrawals by the city from the Rio Grande were stopped entirely for a week and were reduced for several months, due to the increased cost of treating water with high sediment content.

As this example illustrates, climate change impacts can create complex chains of events and often cross jurisdictional boundaries, so coordination of science and planning activities is essential to ensure that conservation and management goals are met. Such coordination is an important part of the USGS mission, and we have undertaken several efforts to implement it. 

Coordinated Activities

In 2009 the Secretary of the Interior issued Secretarial Order 3289 to better coordinate climate activities across the bureaus within Interior.  The order identified Climate Science Centers (CSCs) as Department entities, with the intent of providing support for a full range of DOI resources. It also identified the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) as similarly Department-wide assets.  Funding for the CSCs is focused on fish, wildlife and their habitats. The CSCs are consortia of universities partnered with the USGS. They are overseen by the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC), which was established as part of the development of climate change adaptation strategies over the last decade. The CSCs and the NCCWSC are supported by Congressional appropriations but do not have permanent statutory authority.  As outlined in the President’s FY2014 budget request, the USGS works with the DOI CSCs to develop actionable science and enhance the coordination of regional climate science with decision makers, develop vulnerability assessments as a key component of adaptation planning, and build closer ties with tribal science needs.

One important activity of the recently created DOI CSCs is to provide regional coordination of climate adaptation science.  At all levels of government, and especially within natural resource and environmental management agencies, both management attention and scientific resources are being directed to understanding and planning for climate change.  Regional coordination of these climate activities is important to ensure that all agencies make effective use of limited resources and to eliminate redundancy in climate research. 

The National Research Council in 2009 recommended strengthening links between the science community and decision makers, and focusing more on users’ needs.   These recommendations are important parts of conducting actionable science.  The CSCs work closely with our partners, including the LCCs and the NOAA Regional Integrated Science and Assessments program, to identify on-the-ground needs for climate science for adaptation. We will continue building such relationships with other climate change activities across the Government.

In 2013, the President’s Climate Action Plan highlighted the importance of providing actionable science, and also of identifying vulnerable people, places, and resources, and being climate-smart about the response to disasters like Superstorm Sandy.  The USGS incorporates these goals into many science areas.  For example, we are developing basic information about carbon storage in ecosystems and geologic basins and are building a visualization tool to assist managers in understanding how their decisions will affect carbon storage, helping to advance the President’s goal of increasing the storage of carbon on public lands. We also play a role in the President’s climate data initiative through long-term Earth observing systems such as the streamgage network and the Landsat satellites.  The streamgage network has about 8,000 stations and many have been operating for up to 80 years, with some of the oldest records going back over a century. Landsat represents a major data collection supporting the climate data initiative and will be used to identify land uses and regions in the Nation that are most vulnerable to or resilient in the face of climate change.  Landsat provides land use and climate change information needed to optimize the production of renewable fuels, respond to changing patterns of wildfire occurrence and water availability, reduce carbon pollution, sustain natural resources, and develop climate adaptation plans.

Below are specific examples of potential climate change impacts on the Nation’s natural resources and of tools the USGS is developing to enable decision makers to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. This is certainly not an exhaustive list.

Western Trout Fisheries

The USGS, working closely with the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, and academic partners, has been studying the potential influences of climate change on western trout populations. Trout fishing just in Idaho and New Mexico generates nearly $900 million annually. Trout depend on an ample supply of clean, cold water for survival.  Many of the trout species in the West such as cutthroat trout, bull trout, Gila trout, and Apache trout, have already been affected by land-use change, introduction of non-native species, water withdrawal and other factors, leading to the protection of some species or subspecies under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

However, resource managers need answers to specific questions. What are the potential impacts of climate change to trout and can we identify the potential geographic locations where trout populations could be most impacted? Recent results from our collaborative research on western trout species and subspecies suggest that all species examined have a high risk of potential impact from either climate change—such as drought, wildfire, summer temperatures or winter floods—throughout some portion of their range.  The challenge that lies ahead is how these results can be integrated into development of effective adaptation plans.  As outlined previously, the implementation of an actionable science approach will help the Nation achieve effective adaptation planning for western trout species.   

Vulnerability Assessments

Effective climate adaptation strategies and management responses require a good understanding of how ecosystems are likely to respond to climate change. Climate change vulnerability assessment tools are being used to identify species and habitats at greatest risk from climate change, to help us understand why they are vulnerable, and to inform conservation strategies designed to reduce those vulnerabilities. These strategies may range from maintaining the most vulnerable species and ecosystems, to investing in those most resilient to changes and likely to persist.

The USGS, in concert with partner agencies across government, has planned a searchable, public registry on climate change vulnerability assessments. The goal is to make information about ongoing and completed assessments more readily available, so that resources devoted to such assessments can be most efficiently used. Currently, the plan is to bring in vulnerability assessments from beyond the Federal government.  Paperwork is proceeding through the Federal Register process to open the registry to all sources of vulnerability assessments.    

While our understanding of climate impacts in a changing world has advanced significantly, important challenges remain for future response planning, including maintaining long-term monitoring networks with limited resources; refining models that couple climate and natural resource management to improve science available for decisions; and closing gaps in the global carbon budget to improve forecasts of climate change. We look forward to further discussions with the committee on this matter.

For more information

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