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Adaptive capacity of species - a fundamental component when assessing vulnerability to rapid climate change.

August 8, 2015

A new paper led by U.S. Geological Survey Ecologists Erik Beever (Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center) and Michelle Staudinger (Northeast Climate Science Center) addresses the importance of including adaptive capacity of species as a fundamental component when assessing vulnerability to rapid climate change.

Vulnerability to climate change is dependent on the amount of climate change a species will experience (exposure), its responsiveness to direct and indirect climate impacts (sensitivity), and – the focus of this study – its ability to accommodate those changes through adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity accounts for coping mechanisms such as changes in behavior, movements including shifts in geographical range and distribution, as well as genetic evolution to adjust to environmental or ecological stressors.  A nationwide survey conducted by the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center of hundreds of climate change vulnerability assessments found that among the three components of vulnerability, adaptive capacity is evaluated the least frequently, that adaptive capacity is often omitted entirely, and that adaptive capacity is often confused with sensitivity.  To address these limitations, USGS and colleagues from a broad range of federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations identify ecological features that contribute to adaptive capacity, highlight the potential role for management and conservation to enhance species’ adaptive capacity, outline research needed to better understand adaptive capacity, and provide case studies illustrating how the inclusion of adaptive capacity can enhance species-response models to climate change.  The authors argue that consistent inclusion of adaptive capacity would improve existing vulnerability assessments, the efficacy of climate change adaptation efforts, natural resource management, conservation, decision-making, and related policies.  By not fully accounting for species’ inherent abilities to respond to environmental and ecological change, future projections may be overestimating extinction potential of some species; however, the authors assert that existence of adaptive capacity does not indicate species can handle unlimited amounts of contemporary climate change.  In sum, variability in adaptive capacity among populations and species will have profound implications for which species are most rapidly and markedly affected by climate change.


The study, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with a New Paradigm for Understanding Species’ Fundamental and Realized Adaptive Capacity” has recently been published in the early online edition of Conservation Letters and can be found at this website.   The publication represented a collaborative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, National Research Council, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, universities from across the country and world, and several NGOs.

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