A new commentary by USGS scientists and collaborators looks at the current state of science that measures landscape responses to modern climate change. It describes challenges to measuring these responses, as well as possible opportunities to collect more informative data to better understand climate-change impacts.
Today’s changing climate will affect physical landscape processes around the world. In many cases, those effects are already being seen—in rising sea levels, rapid permafrost thaw, accelerated coastal erosion, increasingly severe drought and flooding, and more frequent and intense wildfire, to name a few. How can scientists studying these landscape processes keep pace with rapidly changing climatic conditions, and how can they ensure that they’re collecting the best available data to determine whether and where climate change is affecting landscapes?
A new commentary by USGS scientists and collaborators looks at the current state of science that measures landscape responses to modern climate change. It describes challenges to measuring these responses—short and incomplete data records, biases in data availability and resolution, for example—as well as possible opportunities to collect more informative data to better understand climate-change impacts.
“This commentary was born out of a previous synthesis that focused on landscape response to climate forcing in the Western U.S.,” said USGS Research Geologist Amy East, lead author of the commentary. “With that 2020 paper, we reviewed the scientific literature to identify gaps in data availability for Western U.S. landscapes. There are now so many studies being published about climate change and its effects—the literature is evolving quickly. With this commentary, we wanted to expand the concept globally and refer to studies that weren’t available only a couple of years ago.”
In the commentary, East et al. called on collaborators to establish ‘bellwether’ study-site lists for specific types of climate-driven landscape responses: coastal erosion, sediment flux in wildfire-altered landscapes, and permafrost thaw, among others.
The authors point out that human activity not only shapes landscapes, but that people tend to bias their data collection toward times and places with human land use, complicating attempts to tease out climate-change information. Additionally, the authors pose the question: Is the landscape behaving differently than in the past, or are apparent differences merely a product of higher-resolution imagery from remote-sensing tools such as satellites?
“This commentary is relevant for our colleagues studying geomorphic responses to climate change,” said USGS Research Geologist Jon Warrick, a co-author of the commentary. “The previous synthesis laid out existing knowledge of a specific region and the gaps in our data and understanding. With this new study, we are asking more broadly, ‘What do we do about climate change as a community of scientists? What systems do we study and what data do we need? And how do we communicate our findings to the broader public?’ This paper is a call to action for our colleagues.”
In the commentary, the authors note that forming a more complete picture through scientific efforts will mean societies are better prepared to predict and manage impacts on human health and safety, infrastructure, water–food–energy security, economics, and ecosystems that are linked to climate-driven physical landscape change.