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Climate-Change Impacts on Wildlife Will Be Studied: Fish and Wildlife Face Significant Risks as the Climate Changes

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Our Nation's fish and wildlife are expected to be significantly affected now and in the future as the climate continues to fluctuate.

New research by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will help us better understand future climate conditions and impacts to species and their habitats. Projects include studies of alterations in Florida's ecosystems, potential impacts on Great Lakes fish, sea-level-rise impacts on San Francisco Bay marshes, and the effects of melting glaciers on Alaska's coastal ecosystems.

"The USGS has funded 17 new projects through the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center," said USGS Associate Director for Biology Susan Haseltine. "Our future holds new climate conditions and new habitat responses, and managers need projections based on sound science to assess how our landscapes may change and to develop effective response strategies for species survival."

Several projects are summarized below, and descriptions of all projects are posted on the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center's Web site at

Preserving Florida's Unique Land

Florida has diverse ecosystems and a unique climate. To understand how it will fare in the face of climate change, modelers must develop scenarios that take this uniqueness into account. USGS scientists are doing just that by creating Florida-specific models regarding which species and habitats will increase or decline based on potential rainfall and temperature changes, as well as the impacts of human-induced land-use and land-cover changes.

What's the Future for Great Lakes Fish?

The Great Lakes support a multibillion-dollar fishing and tourism industry, but little is known about how climate change could affect fish species in the lakes. USGS scientists and collaborators are updating models to predict 50 to 100 years into the future how water level, water temperatures, and ice cover will change in the Great Lakes. Scientists will explore how warmer water temperatures may affect fish growth and consumption rates and will forecast algal production and fish variability in Lakes Michigan and Huron.

The Great Lakes are partly covered by ice and snow in this satellite image acquired March 9, 2003.
Above: The Great Lakes are partly covered by ice and snow in this satellite image acquired March 9, 2003. Image courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration. [larger version]

San Francisco Bay Marshes Under Siege

San Francisco Bay marshes are at risk from sea-level rise, storms, altered salinity, changes in sediment load, and more. These changes threaten plant communities and such species as the salt marsh harvest mouse, the California clapper rail, and the California black rail, which are all listed as either endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. USGS scientists are developing models for this area to predict how much sea level will rise, how species and habitats will be affected, and whether marshes can grow at sustainable rates.

California clapper rail
Above: California clapper rail, San Francisco Bay, California. Photograph by Don Roberson. [larger version]

Climate on the Move: What Will Happen Where

What if managers could map where particular climate conditions will likely occur in the future, or visualize how habitats will respond and move? USGS scientists are working to make these happen, helping to protect our Nation's natural resources. They are creating climate models for North America and smaller scaled models for the contiguous United States and Alaska. Data will be incorporated into an online Web interface where managers can download information and produce maps of projected future climate conditions.

Camouflage Trying to Keep Up with Climate Change

Many species undergo a seasonal change of coat color to match the presence or absence of snow. As the climate changes and snowpack declines, species may have white coats on non-snowy backgrounds. One animal that could be affected is the snowshoe hare, which is prey for the Canada lynx, a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Animals could face population decline, or they could respond by adapting or moving. USGS scientists are tracking snowshoe hares to evaluate their responses, using data to make projections for the next 30 to 50 years.

Melting Glaciers Affecting Ecosystems in the Gulf of Alaska

It is well documented that glaciers that drain into the Gulf of Alaska are melting rapidly in response to climate change. As a result, the flow of freshwater into the gulf is being altered, and impacts are felt across coastal ecosystems. For example, fish feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, and these organisms could be negatively affected as melting glaciers influence the timing and magnitude of the supply of fresh water, nitrate, and iron. Scientists are studying these processes and impacts, with particular focus on the Copper River, which is fed by nearby mountain glaciers and is the Gulf of Alaska's largest freshwater source.

Terminus of thinning and retreating Schwan Glaciers in the Copper River drainage, north-central Chugach Mountains, Alaska.
Above: Terminus of thinning and retreating Schwan Glaciers in the Copper River drainage, north-central Chugach Mountains, Alaska. Note ice-marginal lake that has formed in front of the retreating, debris-covered terminus. View southward; photograph by Bruce F. Molnia, USGS. [larger version]

Trout and Salmon at Risk in the West

Some native trout and salmon populations in the Western United States are at risk for extinction, with many proposed for or listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The recovery of these species is a challenge because climate change is likely to raise water temperatures, alter wildfire occurrences, and increase demand for water resources. USGS scientists are studying how climate change will influence fish habitats, and are providing data to managers to help them assess extinction risks and formulate appropriate response strategies.

Islands and Seabirds Faced with Sea-Level Rise

As the climate continues to change, sea-level rise may inundate low-elevation Pacific islands. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide habitat for the largest assemblage of tropical seabirds in the world (14 million birds and 22 species) and 11 endangered species of terrestrial birds and plants. Even small increases in sea level may result in critical habitat loss. USGS scientists are mapping current species distribution and identifying the areas and species that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Black noddy
Above: Black noddy (Anous minutus) on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands). Photograph courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, taken by Duncan Wright, June 15, 2006. [larger version]

Thirsty Plants in the Arid Southwest

A warmer climate can bring dryer conditions, threatening plant species in the arid Southwestern United States, as well as the wildlife that depend on these plants for habitat and food. USGS scientists will expand on existing models that outline climate-change impacts on plant populations and include as many as 30 plant species. Focus will be placed on plants supporting wildlife of greatest concern. These models will also be used to project changes in wildlife populations.

The National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and other scientific program elements of the USGS will work closely with eight regional Climate Science Centers being established by the Department of the Interior (DOI). These centers will provide scientific information, tools, and techniques needed to manage land, water, wildlife, and cultural resources in the face of climate change. The USGS and the DOI centers will also work closely with a network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in which Federal, State, tribal, and other managers and scientists will develop conservation, adaptation, and mitigation strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Related Sound Waves Stories
New Publication on "Predicting 21st-Century Polar Bear Habitat Distribution from Global Climate Models"
April 2009
Getting Warmer? Prehistoric Climate Can Help Forecast Future Changes
January 2009
Most Alaskan Glaciers Retreating, Thinning, and Stagnating, Says Major USGS Report
December 2008

Related Web Sites
National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center
USGS Office of Global Change

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Fieldwork cover story:
USGS Responds to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

ResearchExtreme Storms Leave Coasts Vulnerable

Fish and Wildlife Face Risks as Climate Changes

Natural Gas Potential Assessed in Eastern Mediterranean

Outreach Open House in Florida

Meetings Vulnerability of Coasts to Sea-Level Rise

Awards Best Poster Award from Pacific Section AAPG

Publications May / June 2010 Publications U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
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Updated May 06, 2014 @ 02:13 PM (JSG)