Adaptive Capacity: the linchpin for understanding and addressing species vulnerability to climate-change impacts

Science Center Objects

When prioritizing natural resource management activities, managers need to understand how plant and animal species differ in terms of their vulnerability to variation in environmental conditions caused by climate change.  Species vulnerability to climate change is controlled by (1) exposure to changing environmental conditions, (2) sensitivity to direct and indirect effects of those changing environmental conditions, and (3) adaptive capacity, or the ability of a species to accommodate or adapt to changing environmental conditions. 

American pika.

(Public domain.)

Elements that contribute to adaptive capacity include dispersal and colonization, phenotypic and behavioral flexibility, and evolutionary capacity.  For example, in response to environmental change, species with greater adaptive capacity can move to or colonize more favorable habitats, can change their behavior or the timing of their life-cycle events, or can evolve over time tend to exhibit higher adaptive capacity.  These coping mechanisms vary among species, so understanding and considering adaptive capacity can help managers determine which species within an ecosystem are most likely to be vulnerable to – and impacted by – climate change.  This will improve the value of vulnerability assessments, help resource managers prioritize the conservation of species and habitats, and improve the efficacy of natural resource management activities designed to enhance adaptation to climate change. 

This multi-year collaboration among partners including USGS, USFWS, NPS, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Research Council will (1) identify and categorize traits and behaviors of organisms that contribute to adaptive capacity, (2) summarize the taxonomic, climatic, biogeographic, and/or disturbance context that affects the expression of adaptive capacity, (3) synthesize our understanding of how adaptive capacity has controlled the response of species already exposed to climate change, (4) highlight how an understanding of adaptive capacity can be used for natural resource management and conservation activities, (5) identify climate-adaptation management actions that may facilitate or increase adaptive capacity, (6) outline crucial information and research needs related to understanding adaptive capacity, (7) establish the research agenda needed to better understand adaptive capacity.  The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a framework that natural-resource managers and other conservation practitioners can use to assess the likely adaptive capacity of species, to help improve effectiveness of conservation planning and resource management in a changing climate.


Adaptive Capacity Project Publications

Adaptive Capacity Project Presentations


Project Activities and Schedule:  

Feb – July 2017:  Draft list of research needs; begin literature review

Aug 2017 – Jan 2018:  Host first workshop and provide feedback; continue literature review

Feb – July 2018:  Draft framework; begin publication submissions

Aug 2018 – Jan 2019:  Host second workshop and provide feedback, Review/revise framework, define tests/case studies

Feb – July 2019:  Complete AC Framework v1, implement tests and make adjustments 

Aug 2019 – Jan 2020:  Documentation of framework and additional applications, development of “tool”; development of training materials and guidance documents; finalize submissions of publications


Nancy Green, Climate Change Scientist, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Falls Church, VA
Tel: (703) 358-2151,

John Gross, Ecologist, NPS Climate Change Response Program, Ft. Collins, CO 
Tel: (970) 267-2111,

Claudia Mengelt, Science Coordinator, California Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Sacramento, CA
Tel: (916) 278-9415,

Gregor Schuurman, Ecologist, NPS, Ft. Collins, CO
Tel: (970) 267-7211,

Laura Thompson, Research Biologist, USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, Reston, VA 
Tel: (703) 648-4083,