4 worst ways climate change is harming wildlands

Wildfire in Wallow-Whitman National Forest

Flickr, Sam Beebe

Climate change is devastating wild lands and the wildlife that thrives inside them, according to findings of a government study.

The National Climate Assessment released in May 2014 had some alarming findings that have direct impact on our wild lands. Climate change is already affecting some of our most prized natural resources and it's only getting worse.

The report was written by over 300 scientists, academics and government officials, and is one of the most detailed studies on the current and future impacts of climate change, a global trend supported by 97% of scientists. The entire report is breathtaking in scope and detail, but there are several noteworthy parts that relate to how our wild lands, and the species that inhabit them, are experiencing the changing climate.

Here are four major ways that climate change is already impacting our wild lands:

1. Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of our forests.

Fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks are changing our forests. Climate change has made forests more susceptible to massive wildfires that last for days. Furthermore, warmer temperatures have prevented insects that formerly would have from dying during cold winters, so they are living longer and feasting on trees. These two huge problems have put our forests at risk, diminishing and hurting the bird species that have come to rely on them as well.

Our forests are critical for stemming the tide of climate change. With very dense tree populations, forests take carbon dioxide, a major atmospheric gas contributing to climate change, out of the atmosphere. Therefore, these places need to be protected so they can help us minimize the danger of climate change.

2. Permafrost is thawing in many parts of Alaska.

Alaska is home to some of our most precious wild lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Denali National Park, and many others. These lands and the animals that make them special thrive on the cold temperatures prevalent most of the year. The changing climate is impacting these ecosystems.

Permafrost, which was formerly permanently frozen soil, affects habitat and surface water in Alaska. Shrinking permafrost affect the rest of the planet too. Rising sea levels and ocean acidification will hurt fisheries and the fishing industry. Alaska's glaciers may become scarce as well.

3. Wildfires are threatening other ecosystems as well.

Climate change is causing wildfires to occur in ecosystems where they have been absent in recent history, such as in arctic Alaska and southwestern deserts. In Alaska, less ice on the ground means more grasslands - and greater susceptibility to significant wildfires.

These fires are not only hurting wildlands and their surrounding towns, but they are bolstering invasive plant species. Plants that were introduced to beautify roadways are being released into river floodplains. Some are toxic to moose, which also affects the Native Alaskan populations who rely on moose for subsistence.

4. Fish populations are declining across the U.S.

A changing climate is wreaking havoc on fish populations throughout the United States. Warming weather and a change in rain patterns have made streams warmer than before, threatening many species, such as salmon, trout, whitefish, and char. The report shows a projected loss of 47% of habitat for all trout species in the western U.S. by 2080.

These fish are moving to greater depths in streams to find the cooler water in which they thrive, which hurts fishing industries as well.

What we are doing to help

The Wilderness Society is working to address the causes and consequences of climate change. Whether it is supporting innovative land management approaches for our forests and Wilderness areas, or restoring trout streams so that they can more easily migrate to areas better suited for their habitat, our team is focused on the importance of managing land for a changing world.

We are also conscious of the need to move from polluting fossil fuels to renewable energy, so we advocate for finding suitable places on our wildlands to develop solar and wind energy.

The National Climate Assessment report attests that America's wildlands are already facing the consequences of climate change. Please join us in fighting back. 

Editor's note: This story was originally published in June, 2014.