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Coastal Conservation in the Context of Climate Change


Trainees in the NSF-funded Coastal Institute IGERT program have identified tangible actions that conservation professionals must take right away to ensure that their portfolios of protected lands continue to provide appropriate ecosystem services in the face of climate change impacts expected to occur in the coming decades. Furthermore, they identified conservation targets that will be of extremely high importance in the future as climate change impacts (e.g., sea level rise, storminess, warmer temperatures) manifest themselves.

The coastal ecosystems of Rhode Island are changing under a variety of natural and human influences. These changes have the potential to affect the ecological functions and processes of this region such as water storage and purification, maintenance of essential habitats for biota, and storm surge and flood protection. Fortunately, Rhode Island has a strong and active network of agencies, conservation organizations and academic researchers who seek to mitigate and/or adapt to these changes when possible in order to maintain or restore ecosystem functions.

It is difficult to identify the most significant among the various factors that lead to changes in coastal habitats, such as increases in development and infrastructure, loss of natural resources, or invasive species introductions. Many of these changes occur on dramatic, short-term scales. Less noticeable and immediate, but equally significant, are the long-term effects of climate change. In their attempts to make decisions regarding the impacts of climate change, many conservation organizations have been hampered by a lack of applicable information and the difficulties inherent in communicating between organizations. These challenges were addressed in the Coastal Conservation in the Context of Climate Change (C5) workshop ( ), which was designed to identify a series of tangible recommendations on how to proceed with land acquisition, stewardship, and restoration in the face of anticipated climate change effects. The workshop was organized and administered by trainees in the NSF-funded Coastal Institute IGERT project, IGERT faculty, and partners from The Nature Conservancy, The RI Coastal Resources Management Council, and the RI Sea Grant Program.

The workshop focused on three conservation activities in separate sessions: acquisition, stewardship, and restoration. Acquisition is the process of identifying suitable properties for conservation and transferring title or development rights from private landholders to a conservation organization or agency. Once a property is secured, it requires stewardship, which is the planning and management of environmental resources to prevent the loss of habitat and facilitate its recovery for long-term sustainability. A third activity is restoration, wherein lands can be enhanced by the restoration of degraded habitats to re-establish ecological processes, functions, and biotic/abiotic linkages that will lead to a persistent, resilient ecosystem integrated within its landscape. Conservation organizations distribute their efforts differently across these three focal activities.

The workshop was attended by 80 professional conservation scientists from state and federal government, academia, and non-profit organizations. IGERT trainees served as speakers, break-out session facilitators, and scribes to record discussions among participants. Following the workshop, the trainees and IGERT faculty prepared a summary document that describes the actions the participants recommended in order to protect key habitat functions in the context of changing climate. They are:

  1. Through a collaborative process, develop a plan for the South Coast of Rhode Island that includes goals for protected habitats as well as habitats in need of protection. Each organization should be unambiguous about the baseline (past and current processes) and the horizon (projected processes) in light of projected climate change. Goals may vary greatly among different environmental organizations but each organization’s strategic actions should align with the overall plan. Having a clear view of the role of each organization will increase the leverage of all participants and will facilitate collaboration.
  2. Create a map of critical habitat zones to protect as part of this plan. If all agree on a shared set of priorities, or habitat preservation areas, groups that are working on separate projects can still be looking at the same map. This could contribute to a large-scale plan of habitat protection, making land preservation in Rhode Island more strategic.
  3. Agree on appropriate definitions of invasive species. Are new species that take hold in our changing Rhode Island climate necessarily invasive? How should habitats with shifting species communities be managed?
  4. Discuss the importance of ensuring that monitoring plans have action thresholds. As monitoring data are collected, synthesis and reflection must continuously occur so management actions are triggered when critical thresholds are reached.
  5. Foster increased communication between small and large organizations and agencies engaged in conservation activities.
  6. Promote the analysis and synthesis of existing data sets.

Address Goals

The findings of this workshop represent a consensus of the leading conservation scientists in our region. The relevance of these finding extend well beyond the borders of Rhode Island. The conclusions we have reached clearly represent a new perspective in ecosystem conservation, and the future benefits to society are unassailable.

The workshop that produced our recommendations for the conservation community was the product of a semester-long work effort by NSF-funded IGERT trainees. They researched the climate change science, translated the science into terms that a citizen audience can understand, posed the questions to our participants, and created the summary document. Furthermore, they organized all aspects of the workshop. Their learning encompassed scholarly issues (climate change science) and practical, logistic issues (hosting a conference for 80 participants).