Visualizing Vulnerability: A Customizable Assessment of Climate Vulnerability in the Midwest Puts Climate Change on the Map

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USGS researchers developed, in collaboration with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers, an interactive watershed vulnerability online dashboard that integrates indicators of climate exposure and adaptive capacity to allow users to create custom spatial vulnerability assessments to inform management practices and prepare for future climate conditions.

aerial photo of a winding river

Bad River Watershed, Wisconsin. (Public domain)

Climate change and the extreme weather associated with it can be a major challenge to natural resource managers charged with the protection, restoration, recovery, and management of wildlife populations and habitats. Forecasting the potential impacts of climate changes will be important for decision-makers and land managers seeking to minimize impacts to habitats, infrastructure, and wildlife populations and prepare for the future. The wealth of climate change information available can be overwhelming and must be made ecologically relevant to be effectively integrated into resource management decision-making. With support from the USGS Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center led a collaborative effort with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) partners to assess broad-scale regional climate vulnerability in the context of natural resource management in the Midwest.

An initial scoping workshop with USFWS (Region 3 and 4) managers representing Fisheries, National Wildlife Refuge System, and Ecosystem Services program areas, and USGS scientists led to identification of relevant climate exposures and adaptive landscape properties to include in the assessment. A series of 15 indicators of temperature, precipitation, and hydrology and five indicators of adaptive capacity were quantified at a HUC-8 (hydrologic unit code) scale and integrated into a vulnerability index. The methodology behind the development of the indicators and the index is detailed in a recent publication in Ecological Indicators.

The need for an accessible and dynamic model was illuminated in that initial workshop when USFWS partners communicated the broad utility of an interactive assessment that could be parameterized by the user for different species, habitats, or ecosystems. The online vulnerability dashboard allows users to weight exposure and adaptive capacity metrics, spatially explore potential impact and adaptive capacity, and export assessment results.

climate change vulnerability assessment dashboard

A screenshot of the climate change vulnerability assessment dashboard. (Public domain)

The online vulnerability dashboard is publicly accessible at https://www.usgs.gov/apps/CC_Vulnerability and has a range of potential applications. In addition to enhancing the ability of USFWS managers to assess regional variation in climate change vulnerability, the online dashboard can also be used in local and regional planning to address climate change. The spatial extent of the dashboard is limited to the Midwest; however, the methodology used to create composite scores of potential impact, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability could be expanded regionally or nationally, and tailored to include alternate suites of indicators. This climate change dashboard is unique because it allows users to visualize the regional variation in a combination of climate change impacts at once. Due to the regional focus, the metrics are coarse and the watershed models we used are regionally calibrated. For more localized climate information, more detailed and localized hydrology modeling would be required and there are several tools available online for visualizing and accessing local climate change projections, some of which are linked in the resources tab within the dashboard.

The vulnerability dashboard was piloted in an ‘adaptation thinking’ series of virtual workshops in which USFWS managers jointly discussed climate impacts and adaptation opportunities for managed wetland systems in the Midwest region. Because the dashboard allows users to toggle indicators on and off (by setting a weight to zero), the workshop participants were able to investigate how individual indicators and combinations of indicators most relevant to managed wetlands varied across the region. Further, the dashboard helped managers conceptualize the multifaceted nature of climate change effects, which broadened the types of adaptation approaches and strategies that the participants developed. The results from the workshop demonstrate how the dashboard can be integrated into adaptation planning and will be released soon as a USGS Open-File Report. The dashboard is currently being used by the USFWS to better understand regional vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies and to advance integration of climate science into formal planning processes.

This work was supported in part by the project, “Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Planning for Projected Changes in Water Quality and Quantity for Protected Areas in the Upper Mississippi Watershed funded by the Northeast CASC.