Species Climate Change Adaptive Capacity

A new paper (Beever et al. 2015 - 300 KB PDF) addresses the importance of including adaptive capacity of species as a fundamental component when assessing vulnerability to climate change. Vulnerability to climate change depends 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 or growth form, movements including shifts in geographical range and distribution, as well as genetic evolution to adjust to environmental or ecological stressors.
Adaptive Capacity flowchart
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A nationwide survey 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, a broad team of experts from 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.
Next Steps
Adaptive capacity varies strongly among species, and therefore understanding and including it in climate change vulnerability assessments is essential for efficient allocation of finite management resources. The NPS is working to develop effective vulnerability analysis frameworks that consistently include adaptive capacity, and this paper reinforces the importance of doing so and provides case studies and a useful structure for understanding how management intervention can influence adaptive capacity.

More Information

This project is part of ongoing work of the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program and collaborators to support park adaptation to changing conditions.

Beever, E.A., John O’Leary, J., Mengelt, C., West, J., Julius, S., Green, N., Magness, D., Petes, L., Stein, B., Nicotra, A.B., Hellmann, J. Robertson, A.L., Babij, E., Brennan, J., Schuurman, G.W., and Hofmann, G.E. 2015. Improving Conservation Outcomes with a New Paradigm for Understanding Species’ Fundamental and Realized Adaptive Capacity. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12190.


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