A New Map of Climate Resilient Landscapes

Posted on July 1, 2020 by Philip Tabas

After 12 years of work by more than 150 Nature Conservancy scientists we now have an interactive map of resilient lands that can withstand climate impacts AND protect biodiversity. Using ground-breaking science, conservationists identified a network of special places across the U.S. that have unique topographies, geologies, soils, temperatures and other characteristics that, if properly protected, could provide safe havens for species migrating away from growing climate threats.

We know that plant and animal species are disappearing at an alarming rate as their habitats are altered or destroyed by warmer temperatures, increased flooding and other impacts from the changing climate. One-third of animal and plant species could face extinction in the next 50 years due to climate change, according to a study from scientists at the University of Arizona. We know too that nature is on the move to escape these climate impacts. For example, in North America, studies show that species are shifting their ranges an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet in elevation each decade. Many species are approaching – or have already reached – the limit of where they can go to find hospitable climates. Research has also shown that more than half – nearly 60% – of US lands and waters are fragmented by human development, blocking species movement and preventing species from finding new and more hospitable habitat. 

The Resilient and Connected Network Map (see: http://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/) for the contiguous U.S. provides a new way to prioritize lands for land conservation action. This model offers a roadmap for preserving a network of resilient sites and connecting corridors that could sustain North America's natural diversity by allowing species to adapt to and thrive in the face of climate impacts. By protecting the most resilient landscapes, conservationists hope to double their environmental impact by 2050.

By providing safe havens for diverse species, this network of lands could also protect important sources of fertile soils, clean drinking water, economic resources and other vital services people rely on for survival. Conserving such a resilient network has large benefits for both people as well as nature. For example, resilient areas identified in Eastern North America not only serve as home to more than 30,000 species of plants and animals but also support a $25 billion outdoor recreation industry.  Additionally, protecting these resilient areas would secure over 66 million acres of high-value source water supply land, provide 1.8 billion tons of oxygen annually, and mitigate over 1.3 million tons of air pollution avoiding $913 million in human health costs. Resilient lands could also capture and store higher amounts of carbon than other areas and thus help offset greenhouse gas emissions; in the Eastern US, these lands could store an estimated 3.9 billion tons of carbon.

Of the total acreage represented in the network, approximately 301 million acres are already in some form of protected status. To protect the remainder, we will have to protect as much land as we have protected in the last 100 years of previous land conservation action. Although challenging, if government agencies, land trusts, the private sector and others can be persuaded to use this new science to direct conservation action and resources to these most important lands, it can maximize the impact of conservation funding and actions. Recent Senate passage of the Great American Outdoors Act or "GAOA” which would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million annually for the first time since the program's creation in 1964, gives some hope that we will be able to meet this challenge.

By conserving these environmental strongholds, we can protect the lands best-equipped to sustain threatened species -- and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change in the process. Saving nature from the effects of climate change might seem to be a daunting task. But, by focusing on conserving naturally resilient lands, we can keep the planet habitable for a vast array of species, including our own.