When Resistance is Futile: Adaptation in the Face of System Transformation

When Resistance is Futile: Adaptation in the Face of System Transformation

Bruce Stein
National Wildlife Federation
Time Slot: 
Tuesday 4:30pm - Concurrent Session 3
Session Type: 
Symposium (Individual Presentations)

Accelerating climate change is already beginning to transform the structure, composition and function of ecosystems, with attendant consequences for the services and benefits these systems provide to people. Unfortunately, much of the climate adaptation currently underway still focuses on efforts to resist change as a means of retaining the persistence of current conditions. Natural resource managers increasingly will be confronted by situations where such persistence-oriented approaches are untenable: in other words, when resistance is futile. This symposium will focus on adaptation in the context of change management, and specifically the challenges of preparing for and adapting to system realignments and transformations. The session will address the conceptual basis for transformation-oriented adaptation, including the challenges of identifying ecological thresholds and tipping points, and the cyclical nature of managing for persistence and change. Symposia talks will also review the historical context for ecosystem transformation, drawing lessons from the paleo record and major ecological transitions in the past. Finally, the symposium will focus on a system undergoing major ecological transformations, and explore various management options for responding to, or even facilitating, such transitions, along with policy issues that may constrain or promote such change-oriented responses.


Beyond resistance: Managing for change, not just persistence
Bruce A Stein, National Wildlife Federation
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This talk will lay out the conceptual basis for thinking about climate adaptation in terms of ecological transformation and change management. Although resistance, resilience, and realignment are a popular way to frame high-level adaptation approaches, in practice both resistance and resilience strategies usually emphasize the persistence of current or historical conditions. As climatic changes accelerate, such a focus on persistence will become increasingly untenable. Consequently, managers will need to more clearly understand when (and where) an emphasis on persistence may be possible, when a focus on transformation will be necessary, and how and when to cycle between the two to achieve acceptable conservation outcomes.

And then what? Anticipating climate-driven ecosystem transformations
Stephen Jackson, US Geological Survey
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Ecological management and conservation practice are embedded in long-held assumptions of ecological stasis, frequently with narrow targets focused on maintaining ecosystems in historical or recent states. Climate change poses a critical challenge, because it inevitably drives compositional, structural, and functional changes in ecological communities and ecosystems. Such changes are not new, however. In fact, from the perspective of the past few millennia, ecological stasis has been the exception, not the rule, with extensive ecological change, over much of the globe, driven by natural climate change and variability. The long history of ‘natural’ ecological change provides useful perspectives for conservation, opening up a broader range of potential targets and outcomes, and preparing managers to anticipate fundamental, and often rapid, ecological transformation. Future ecological states may be difficult to predict, given the contingent nature of ecological outcomes; in a given setting, multiple future ecological realizations are plausible because of path-dependent processes (disturbance, mortality, extirpation, recruitment, invasion). Ecological managers and conservation practitioners will need to be alert to the potential for threshold dynamics, and to multiple, historically contingent futures. Effective management may require nimbleness, willingness to experiment, and emphasis on desirable outcomes that may differ substantially from current or historical states.

Climate-induced ecological transformation on the Kenai Peninsula
John Morton, US Fish and Wildlife Service
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The impacts of a warming climate on the 6 million-acre Kenai Peninsula are already dramatic and forecasted to become even more so. The southern peninsula was the epicenter of a spruce bark beetle outbreak that culled 1 million acres of Sitka, white and Lutz spruce forest over a 15-year period. The fire regime appears to be expanding from summer canopy fires in spruce to human-caused spring fires in grasslands. As the climate has warmed and available water declined over the past half century, treeline has risen, wetlands have dried and the Harding Icefield has ablated. Climate envelope modeling portrays a future landscape with continuing afforestation of alpine tundra and lowland peatlands by advancing hemlock and spruce, but an uncertain forecast for lower elevations that range from more hardwood to deforestation. Although our conceptual model is that species will generally move northward in latitude and upward in elevation in response to a warming climate, this paradigm is challenged on the peninsula where migration is constrained by the severe rain-shadow effect of the Kenai Mountains and the 10 mile-wide isthmus. Particularly on the southwestern Kenai, where models suggest a system at the climatic nexus of boreal, temperate and grassland biomes, the long-term outcome is very uncertain but will likely be influenced by human fire starts, exotic species, and a depauperate native biota. We believe there is an opportunity to deliberately influence the trajectory, but it will take a sea-change in how we manage our lands.