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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Adapting to our Warming Planet

Air Date: Week of

Images from the Nature Conservancy Coastal Resilience Project - The Branford Harbor in Branford, CT. The image on the left is a 2020 conservative scenario without any storm surge; the image on the right is 2080 with a category 3 Hurricane (The Nature Conservancy Coastal Resilience project.)

More dramatic floods, hurricanes, cyclones and wildfires, increases in global temperatures and higher levels of precipitation are consequences of climate change. In order to survive these environmental shifts, communities need to adapt their behaviors, says Frank Lowenstein of The Nature Conservancy. He talks with host Bruce Gellerman about how to plan for the future and adjust to a changing planet


GELLERMAN: Scientists say it's nearly certain temperatures are going to be higher, and now the question is: Can we adapt to a rapidly climate changing world? Frank Lowenstein is the climate adaptation strategy leader for The Nature Conservancy. He is just back from the climate summit in Durban. Hi, Welcome back.

LOWENSTEIN: Thank you very much, Bruce!

GELLEMAN: So, what does the world that we need to adapt to look like?

LOWENSTEIN: Well, we already are seeing climate changes. We’ve seen increases in precipitation on a global basis, and we’ve seen increases in global temperature - those two trends are going to continue. We’re also going to see an increase in climate extremes. So, although precipitation is going to increase on a global basis, there may be places that get very dry and other places that get very wet and flooded.

GELLERMAN: So, extremes: heavier rainfall, floods, stronger winds, cyclones, hurricanes…

A US Coast Guard Reservist wades into 2011 Mississippi floodwater (United States Army Corps of Engineers)

LOWENSTEIN: Yes, yes, stronger hurricanes. An increase in severe thunderstorms - a new article just out suggests that by the end of the century there will be a doubling of the frequency of severe thunderstorm conditions on the East Coast of the U.S.

GELLERMAN: Great, so now I'm without hope. How do I cope? How do we adapt to this changing world?

LOWENSTEIN: Well, the first thing we need to do is to be conscious about the need to adapt and to start to put in place policies in our everyday lives, in our cities’ planning, in our states’ planning and in our national policies to help us adapt.

The Nature Conservancy believes that natural ecosystems have a very important role to play in helping us to adapt. We need to preserve key ecosystems that are providing services to people, which we may not even be aware of, that are helping us to adapt today. And, in some places we need to restore ecosystems that have been degraded or lost.

GELLERMAN: Let’s talk about the ones we have to protect, how do we do that?

LOWENSTEIN: Well some of it is just putting the right incentives into place. And, some of it is recognizing the values of those ecosystems. So we’re sitting here in Somerville, Massachusetts. The water that we drink comes out of the Quabbin Reservoir, and the Quabbin Reservoir is kept very pure by the forests that surround that reservoir. And, with more precipitation, which is what we’re forecasted to get here in Massachusetts, there will be more erosion, more sedimentation. You may need a larger buffer of forests. You may need to manage those forests differently so that they do a better job with the filtration.

GELLERMAN: So, are we doing those things now? Are we preparing for more precipitation and the reservoir going up?

LOWENSTEIN: We are in the very early stages of doing this. There are some really good examples of places that are doing it.

GELLERMAN: For example?

LOWENSTEIN: So, in the desert Southwest, there’s an effort which is thinking about how do we mange the national forests so that they continue to deliver clean water to the cities of the desert southwest? Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Phoenix. So for example last spring with the wildfires that took place that were so dramatic in the desert Southwest and which, again, are in line with what we’re expecting more of with climate change in that region, there was massive erosion of sediment and charcoal into the rivers that provide the water supply for Albuquerque.

Frank Lowenstein (Photo: Mark Godfrey/TNC)

So if we manage the forests to reduce the risk of fire - go for a forest that has fewer, larger trees spread out more from one another - these are basic forest management techniques - we know how to do that - then we can reduce the risk of severe wildfire, and at the same time, capture more snow. By capturing more snow, we can preserve water flow into the summer longer, even as temperatures rise, and help further reduce the risk of wildfire.

GELLERMAN: The Nature Conservancy has a program - you’ve been using satellite imagery of the Long Island Sound - what do you hope to do with that information?

LOWENSTEIN: Sure, this is our Coastal Resilience Project. It’s really thinking about how is sea level rise, driven largely by climate change, and coastal storms, driven by both climate change and just past history - how is that going to affect coastal communities?

GELLERMAN: They’re going to get whacked!

LOWENSTEIN: Yes, but where? Is it going to whack your local hospital? Is it going to affect your evacuation routes, your roads that you need to get people out of the way of hurricanes? Which houses are most vulnerable? So all of these are questions that people need to know to start planning, and that should affect local zoning so that we build new facilities, new hospitals, new schools, in places that are not vulnerable.

GELLERMAN: So there are things we can do to our environment to help us adapt to a changing world. What about wildlife that can’t adapt?

Old railroad station in Vicksburg, Ms after Mississippi River floods (2011).

LOWENSTEIN: Well, there’s a lot of thought going into that, and we’re already seeing a movement north by animals and plants. We’re seeing a shift in seasonality. We’re seeing that plants come to flower earlier, birds return from their southern migration earlier and leave later.

So we’re seeing plants and animals making changes on their own. Sometimes we’re going to get in the way of that. You know, if you’re an owl, if your habitat has moved 100 miles north, you can fly over a city to that new habitat. If you’re a snail, that’s a tougher task. So, there’s a lot of effort going into thinking about where are the suitable habitats going to be, and how can we help plants and animals to reach them? How do we preserve maybe corridors that enable wildlife movement between natural areas?

GELLERMAN: You mean, a corridor, a way of getting…a channel basically? Through an ecosystem, or…

LOWENSTEIN: You know, it’s more thinking about it not as a strict corridor, like- we’re going to put up a fence and plant forests linking to another one. But maybe what we’re going to do is find out a way to reduce the ecological contrast so that the farms and second-growth forests are more like the older forests. And so plants and animals that live in that older forest are able to move into that surrounding area and diffuse through to the next large forest block.

GELLERMAN: Have you ever thought of what you’re personally going to do if your place where you live has weird, extreme weather?

Image of the 2011 Mississippi Flood
Credit: USDA.gov

LOWENSTEIN: Absolutely! Yes. I live in Western Massachusetts, and in the last couple of years we’ve seen terrible ice storms that left people without power for over a week in many cases. And, then huge tree damage that again left people without power for up to a week after the October snowstorm.

And also Hurricane Irene left some people without power for days, and up to a week. So, we’re seeing those kinds of climate extremes changing things in our community. My wife and I are thinking about putting in a couple of woodstoves in our house as a backup source if the power goes out.

And, we have already put in solar panels to help generate electricity and create a more diffuse electrical network. If instead of being dependent on a few large power plants, if we have dispersed power sources across a larger area, that’s likely to be more resilient.

GELLERMAN: Well, Frank Lowenstein, thank you so very much for coming in.

LOWENSTEIN: Thank you, Bruce, happy to have been here.

GELLERMAN: Frank Lowenstein is the climate adaptation strategy leader for the Nature Conservancy.



The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Program

The Nature Conservancy


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