Scientist Spotlight: Adam Terando & Addressing Climate and Land Use Change in the Southeast

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A closer look at the research of Adam Terando, ecologist for the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Scientist presenting at the IPCC Scientific Conference in Brazil

Adam Terando in 2015, when he attended and presented at an IPCC Scientific Workshop on Regional Climate Modeling in Sao Jose dos Campos in Brazil.

Credit: Adam Terando

Ecologist Adam Terando has always been interested in the natural world. Growing up on a farm in central Illinois exposed him to a variety of ecological relationships as a child. Most notable of these relationships, he says, was the impact humans had on the environment around him.

“Being on a farm, you see that different things are happening on different landscapes,” says Terando. “You get an appreciation for how humans affect these landscapes, but also how biology and ecology work inside and outside of these human systems.”

His education and interests eventually guided him towards working for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in North Carolina, where he studied the impacts of climate change on different species and habitats of regional concern. Terando accepted his current position as Research Ecologist for the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) soon after the center was established in 2011. He says his role within the CASC network perfectly marries his passions for ecology and climatology as he strives to answer a monumental question: How are climate and land use changes in the Southeast impacting regional wildlife and the abilities of resource managers to do their jobs?

“Historically, the Southeast was extremely rural. There are so many people moving here now because we have nice weather and great beaches, so that’s a big change we’ve seen over the past 50 years,” says Terando, referring to the rapid population growth and urbanization of the region. “One unique aspect of southeastern climate adaptation efforts is that here, in particular, land use change is just as important as climate change in terms of what managers are thinking about and having to deal with.”

Land use change and climate change interact with each other in several ways. In the Southeast, urban and suburban development into agricultural and forested lands is creating negative outcomes, such as habitat loss and water quality degradation, which can be exacerbated by changes in climate. As a result, resource managers who work in these areas are finding it difficult to meet their conservation objectives as they plan for an environmental transformation driven by both urban expansion and climate change.

“Whether it’s rising seas, warmer temperatures, or more intense rainstorms, managers have to be able to develop strategies to respond,” says Terando. “Unfortunately, many adaptation strategies used in other regions are much harder to implement in the Southeast because of rapid urban and suburban expansion.”   

“The goal is to give managers an idea of what the future might hold for Southeast landscapes if we continue along this current trajectory of urbanization under a changing climate.”

Terando’s work on urbanization in the Southeast addresses management concerns by predicting future regional land use change scenarios through climate modeling techniques. Such models are what Terando calls “spatially explicit”, meaning the products of this type of research include maps showing what these urbanization patterns would physically look like on the ground.

“The goal is to give managers an idea of what the future might hold for Southeast landscapes if we continue along this current trajectory of population increase and urbanization under a changing climate,” says Terando.

One example of this work in action is an urbanization scenario developed by Terando and his colleagues which projects substantial increases in low-density urban development from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, along the corridor of Interstate 85. These results were included in a visualization tool produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called The Conservation Blueprint that helps regional managers, scientists, and stakeholders see which habitats are more likely to fall into projected paths of urbanization. This process aided the development of adaptation plans for Southeast ecosystems facing land use changes, and will continue to be important for conserving regional wildlife threatened by additional impacts from climate change. The results from this research were used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inform an urgent conservation plan for the Atlantic Pigtoe—a freshwater mussel found in southeastern river basins—and reassess its conservation status. The tiny mussel has since been classified as critically endangered, increasing conservation support offered to this species.

“Part of my job is to point out areas that maybe managers aren’t thinking about in terms of climate risk,” says Terando. “I think helping managers identify risks that aren’t so obvious, or newly emerging risks, is a big part of what we do within the CASC network.”

Prescribed burning management in a Florida Forest

A prescribed burn at Tall Timbers Research Station, Florida, where Terando is working with researchers to understand how climate change could affect fire management in the Southeast.

Credit: Adam Terando

One newly identified risk for resource managers in the Southeast is the potential for warming temperatures to affect the ability of managers to conduct ‘prescribed’ fires throughout the region. Prescribing or intentionally setting fires has numerous ecological benefits, such as reducing the intensity and scope of naturally-occurring wildfires, and is a widely used management practice in the Southeast where seasonal wildfires are common. Currently, more acres are burned through prescribed fire in the Southeast than any other region in the country. Warming temperatures can reduce the frequency of climate conditions that create a safe environment for conducting future burns. Terando is part of a research team currently working to understand what these changes could look like in the future using climate model projections. This research will help natural resource managers accomplish their mission for habitat conservation through effective prescribed burning.

“We found that in the summertime, temperatures in the Southeast are projected to become very warm,” says Terando, referring to the results outlined in a publication still in review. “Since temperature is an important consideration for managers as to when they plan a burn, this increase in summertime temperature could dramatically impact their ability to prescribe fires in the future.”

Although valuable, climate projections from scientific models can be difficult to interpret and are not always readily useful to resource managers who likely have not been trained in how to use this type of data. Terando has experience hosting workshops, and working with partners who host workshops, to help managers and other stakeholders identify which regional climate variables are of greatest concern and therefore require further research.

“Helping managers identify newly emerging climate risks is a big part of what we do in the CASC network.”

Terando has combined his background in climate science, geography, and ecology to simulate future urbanization patterns, project changes in extreme wildfire risk, and understand the effects of climate and land use change. He plans on using this diverse skillset in the future as part of newly proposed research on species translocation strategies, which involve moving individuals to unoccupied habitats that are more likely to withstand projected future changes in climate. The proposed study he is co-leading with USGS colleagues from the Southeast CASC and the North Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit would take place in Puerto Rico where significant future drying is projected to occur, threatening the existence of many amphibian species which thrive in moist habitats.

“As a manager, if one of your options to preserve a species is translocation, it would be helpful to know if that new habitat can resist future changes,” says Terando, who hopes that his work will help piece together a bigger picture about the changes which may occur to the climate and, as a result, to the environment at large.

“With this knowledge, we can figure out ways to adapt and help natural resource managers and wildlife conservation organizations accomplish their missions,” says Terando. “The goal throughout our CASC network is to work through these issues with the decision-makers who are asking for help as they develop strategies to deal with the changing risks that come with climate change.”

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Adam Terando’s educational background in geography and climatology took him through a variety of United States landscapes. He completed his undergraduate studies in his home state of Illinois, but his master’s research took him to Delaware, and finally he received his Ph.D. in Geography from Pennsylvania State University. His research on southeastern wildlife and habitat conservation is part of a cooperative regional effort to improve the health of Southeast and Caribbean ecosystems called the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS). Through SECAS, the Southeast CASC and a diverse array of partners and stakeholders aim to increase ecosystem functionality and connectivity in these areas by 10% over the next 40 years. Learn more about this vital work here.

Terando’s research focuses on different ecosystems in many locations. Check out some of his adventures below!

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