Northeast Fish & Wildlife Habitat Vulnerability Assessment
This product assesses how vulnerable the Northeast's major terrestrial and wetland habitats are to climate change. Thirteen major ecosystem types occurring from Maine to Virginia and West Virginia were systematically evaluated through a collaborative process. The findings can be used in preparing for and adapting to a changing climate.
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This report is associated with a project that completed three assessments of the vulnerability of terrestrial, aquatic, and coastal habitats (ecosystems) to climate change, including sea level rise. One assessment evaluated 13 terrestrial and wetland habitat types, the second evaluated cold water stream habitats, and the third evaluated coastal habitats.
This report has been cataloged in the USGS Climate Registry for Assessment of Vulnerability (CRAVe) and in the NExUS database, a searchable online gateway to climate information for the Eastern US, Atlantic Canada and the maritime region known as the Northwest Atlantic.
In a project extending from Maine to Virginia and West Virginia, the Northeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (NEAFWA), the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NALCC), Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences (Manomet), and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) collaborated with other major northeastern stakeholders in safeguarding fish and wildlife and their habitats from climate change. Specifically, NEAFWA, NALCC, Manomet, and NWF completed a three-year effort to evaluate the climate change vulnerabilities of the Northeast’s key habitats, and to help increase the capabilities of state fish and wildlife agencies to respond to these challenges.
A total of 13 habitats were evaluated :
Forests and Woodlands
Laurentian-Acadian Northern Hardwood Forest
Appalachian Northern Hardwood Forest
Central Mixed Oak-Pine Forest
Northeastern Pine Barrens
Acadian-Appalachian Montane Spruce-Fir Forest
Central and Southern Appalachian Spruce-Fir Forest
Laurentian-Acadian Wet Meadow-Shrub Swamp
Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Basin Peat Swamp
Laurentian-Acadian Freshwater Marsh
North-Central Interior and Appalachian Acidic-Peatland
Boreal-Laurentian-Acadian Acidic Basin Fen
Acadian-Appalachian Alpine Tundra
To investigate potential geographical variation in habitat vulnerabilities to climate change across the Northeast Region, the entire region was divided into 4 latitudinal zones, corresponding approximately to the major bioclimatic zones of the region.
Most of the habitats that were evaluated in this study are likely to suffer range contractions under the changing climate. Eight habitats are at significant risk of being eliminated entirely from the Northeast (Appalachian Spruce-Fir Forest), or of having their current distributions reduced by at least 50% in at least one zone (Alpine Tundra, Montane Spruce-Fir Forest, Northern Hardwood Forest, Appalachian Northern Hardwood Forest, Appalachian Spruce-Fir Forest, Boreal-Laurentian Bog and Acidic Fen, and Acidic Peatland). These are all habitats that are either northern or boreal in their distributions, confined to high elevations or mountain summits, or reach their southernmost extents within the region.
For many of the habitats that are vulnerable to climate change and that occur in two or more zones (Montane Spruce-Fir Forest, Northern Hardwood Forest, Appalachian Northern Hardwood Forest, Central Oak-Pine Forest) their vulnerabilities increase from north to south, as their bioclimatic range limit is approached.
Not all of the habitats assessed are equally vulnerable to climate change. While some are highly vulnerable, others (Atlantic White Cedar Swamps, Pine Barrens, Emergent Marshes and Shrub Swamps) are much less so. This is because these habitats are not northern in distribution and extend far to the south of the Northeast Region into areas where the climatic conditions are already similar to those projected for the region in the future, their dominant and/or foundational species may not be particularly vulnerable to climate change, and many of them are not particularly sensitive to the types of ecological disruptions that can be expected to occur under the changing climate, for example drought and more frequent or severe wildfires.
Some habitats may benefit from the changing climate. Better-adapted species and habitats will expand their distributions into these areas from which they may have previously been excluded by competition. For example, Central Oak-Pine Forest is likely to expand its range into areas that are currently dominated by northern hardwood plant species.
Climate change and non-climate stressors may interact to affect habitat distributions. Some forest pests are already benefiting from the changed climatic conditions. Under warming winter temperatures, hemlock wooly adelgid, for example, is shifting its range northwards and impacting hemlock stands that were previously not vulnerable to it.
In some cases, the responses of human communities to the changing climate may be as important for habitats as climate change itself. However, projecting how societies might respond is highly uncertain.
Hector Galbraith (independent consultant)
LCC Staff Contact(s):
Scott Schwenk, Science Coordinator
Photo Credit: Steve Arena/USFWS