Putting the 'local' in global climate change

When talking with community members about environmental issues such as climate change, we often hear a desire for more locally relevant information about how global climate processes affect the Western North Carolina region. In response, we’ve decided to focus this column on two climate-related issues that will be important to this region in the coming decades: changes in precipitation and climate effects on biodiversity.

While many scientists frequently speak about climate change in terms of global trends and patterns, some scientists at the Coweeta Long Term Ecological (LTER) site are linking these findings to the local region. This research can be combined with efforts to characterize the social and ecological conditions of our region by other organizations, such as the Mountain Resources Commission (MRC), to better understand the effects of environmental change on our local environment.

We can use the Western North Carolina Vitality Index [http://www.wncvitalityindex.org/] created by the MRC in collaboration with the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the USDA Forest Service to focus on these key issues. The Vitality Index provides a specific view on key social and environmental issues for 27 counties in the region. The index is designed to be useful for individuals and groups ranging from decision-makers to private landowners.

Many of you are familiar with the high variability in precipitation in Western North Carolina based on elevation and location relative to mountain areas. While there is still much to be determined about how climate change will affect the amount, type, and timing of precipitation in this region, the Vitality Index states that “With climate change, there may not be any change in total precipitation, but there may be extended wet and dry periods that might result in more flooding or drought.” This increase in extreme events has the potential to affect a range of local processes from agricultural production, to ecosystem health, to urban flooding and water supplies. In fact, the presence of more weather extremes is typical of what scientists predict will happen with future climate change, and Western North Carolina will certainly experience (and perhaps is already experiencing) the direct effects of these changes. Indeed, a 2011 study by U.S. Forest Service Researcher Dr. Chelcy Ford and her colleagues found that there was a significant increase in temperature at Coweeta as well as an increase in the frequency of wet and dry years since the 1980s.

Some research is looking into possible ways to deal with the predicted climate changes in precipitation. Dr. Ford’s 2011 study determined that forest management might have the potential to mitigate an increase in extreme precipitation events (high intensity rainfall) that is predicted to happen with climate change. This ongoing research may be able to provide local environmental managers with both an understanding of local effects of climate change and potential options to decrease its impact on the region.

Many scientists, and of course local residents, recognize how unique this region is in terms of the diversity of species (also called biodiversity). The Vitality Index states that “The temperate ecosystems of the Blue Ridge Mountains are exceptionally diverse” and “The Southern Appalachian ecoregion (which encompasses the Blue Ridge Mountain Section) contains an estimated 80 species of amphibians and reptiles, 175 species of terrestrial birds, 65 species of mammals, 2,250 species of vascular plants, and possibly as many as 25,000 species of invertebrates.”

But how might climate change affect biodiversity? The United States Global Change Research Program indicates temperature will generally increase in the Southern Appalachian ecoregion, and the largest increase will occur in summer daily high temperatures. LTER researchers Joe Milanovich, John Maerz, and colleagues examined the effects of temperature increases on regional salamanders. They found that suitable salamander habitat will decrease under all future climate scenarios. They also determined that temperature changes are likely to affect the distribution of salamanders in this region. Species with smaller or more southerly habitat ranges may experience the greatest pressure.

Ultimately, the complexity of environmental change will require collaborations between research scientists, decision- makers, and community members to determine the effects of climate change on the region and how to respond to them. If you or organizations you are affiliated with are interested in these issues, please contact us for further discussion.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page A10. Nov 2, 2012.