The uphill battle of climate adaptation

A guest blog by Sarah Skikne

I start my car at the base of the Highway 74. The temperature outside is a dry 100°F.  I quickly leave behind the golf courses of Palm Desert and am surrounded by widely-spaced cholla cactus, creosote, sand and rocks – a quintessential desert. The road winds through hairpin turns and climbs uphill, and in just 10 minutes, the creosote have given way to spiky agave and yucca. In five more minutes of climbing, it’s clumps of juniper and shrub oaks. Another five minutes, short pinyon pines. And after just 20 minutes of driving, I can see snow-capped pine forests at the top of Toro Peak.  

Looking down towards the base of Highway 74 from an elevation of 2390 ft. 

Looking down towards the base of Highway 74 from an elevation of 2390 ft. 

My car crosses through this array of ecosystems in just 15 miles, illustrating how the climate quickly cools as one moves up a steep slope, and how ecosystems transition from one to the next in response. It’s a striking lesson in how species arrange themselves where they can best survive, each specializing in a specific set of climatic conditions.

But like so many other parts of our lives, climate change is poised to disrupt this pattern. Since the 1970s, temperatures have warmed and precipitation has become more variable in the area, and we know there are more changes to come. In turn, species are responding.

Just like I can drive uphill to get to a cooler climate, plants and animals will also move uphill, to places that are naturally cooler. In fact, many species are already moving uphill or northwards (in the Northern hemisphere – or southwards in the Southern hemisphere) in response to climate change – including along Highway 74.  My own research documents the changes that have already taken place by comparing photographs of plants taken from the same spot in 1970s and again today.

While you can probably imagine a little desert squirrel choosing a more uphill site for its burrow, what about those cactus, which can’t exactly pick up and walk uphill?  Unlike animals, plants have to wait until they reproduce to move, when seeds get blown or carried a little bit uphill, landing in a cooler spot and having a slightly better chance of surviving until they grow up, reproduce, and some of their seeds can inch uphill even further. 

So species can inch uphill by themselves in the face of climate change. Sounds hopeful, right? Unfortunately, this natural shifting process will be a big challenge for many species today, for a variety of reasons:

  • Modern climate change is much faster than past, natural climate changes and cycles, leaving species little time to respond.
  • Humans have already pushed some plants and animals to the brink by destroying habitat and introducing invasive species, making these species more vulnerable to additional drastic changes.
  • Even if some species successfully shift uphill, others will be left behind, tearing apart networks of species that rely on each other.  A mouse won’t be able to find the seeds it is used to eating, and a plant may miss the bird that used to disperse its seeds. 
  • The steep slope of Highway 74 is pretty unusual. In flatter places, species will have to move much greater distances in order to get to a cooler spot.  The mouse on the prairie will have to move much further north than the mouse in the desert has to move uphill.

In the face of these challenges, it’s easy to feel at a loss. Species who cannot respond quickly enough may face extinction. These challenges may seem insurmountable, but there is a growing movement to take it on. The “climate adaptation” movement includes efforts to plan and prepare for climate change. In the conservation sector, this includes a grant program managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).  Since 2011, WCS has distributed over $11 million to support non-profits in taking on-the-ground, tangible actions to help plants, animals, and the landscapes they inhabit respond to climate change.  

Over five years, the program has received nearly 500 applications. My work to characterize these proposed projects shows that their focus ranges from salamanders to pine trees, from seashores to mountaintops, and from Maine to Arizona. Climate adaptation pioneers are planning a diverse array of approaches to solving this problem – from connecting protected areas so that plants and animals can shift between them, to cooling streams by shading them with trees so that animals can stay where they are.

It will be an uphill battle for plants and animals – and for us. But these proposed climate adaptation projects give us hope — a place to start, a pool of ideas to learn from, and soon, effective actions to scale up.

Sarah Skikne is a Ph.D. candidate in the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC.