Why wildland lovers should care about the International Climate Change Report

Snapshot of sea ice from NASA's Aqua satellite on Sept. 3, 2010.

NASA Goddard

We knew that climate change was already wreaking havoc on our public lands, but what we didn’t know was how widespread that damage actually is. Forest, desert and arctic landscapes are all being profoundly affected by large shifts in climate, according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC provides the most recent scientific information on how climate change is impacting our planet and wild places. Hundreds of leading scientists and experts contribute to the report every four years.

Available science has made it clear that humans are greatly influencing our planet’s climate, and the future looks dire unless we commit to strong actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is why The Wilderness Society has been advocating for a transition to cleaner energy sources like wind and solar.

America’s forests at risk

America’s forests are some of the areas of greatest concern when it comes to assessing the impacts of climate change. About one-third of the nation is covered in forests, or roughly 747 million acres. Our forests provide key habitat for wildlife, help to conserve the water we drink, prevent erosion and are also great for outdoor recreation. But they’re being wiped out. Increasing temperatures and changes in precipitation are causing tree mortality at alarming rates across the west, permanently altering ecosystems.

There’s a clear intersection between our forests and our changing climate. Trees absorb heat and help to keep the climate cool. Large forests play a role in the water cycle by creating the right conditions to control rainfall patterns. Forests can also act as a solution to climate change as they remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

The disappearance of forests on regional levels is strongly linked to periods of drought that are worsened by climate change. Droughts have become more frequent, prolonged and severe in southwestern forests and woodlands in the United States. This makes them vulnerable to an expansion of pests such as beetles, borers and pathogenic fungi. Droughts also lead to flash-flooding when rain finally returns to a region, causing run-offs and flash flooding that often impact fresh drinking water sources.

Other Target Zones

Climate change has produced five major concerns on America’s public lands, according to the report:

  • Deserts are becoming warmer and drier. These changes are happening in deserts at faster rates than any other region. This puts stress on the landscape’s plant and animal species, as well as the people who call the southwest desert home. Plant vegetation has declined greatly across California and Arizona leaving animal species, such as the endangered desert tortoise, searching for new food sources.
  • Temperatures and sea levels are rising in the Arctic. This is causing aquatic habitat loss. Many animal species are at risk of extinction. As a result of temperature increases, boreal forests are invading the tundra and replacing the native habitats of snowy owl, caribou and arctic foxes.
  • Climate change is escalating wildfires on public lands. In 2012, 9.33 million acres burned in the west, which was the third highest wildfire record since 1960. These fires pose a direct threat to human lives, forest ecosystems and water quality.
  • Waterways that serve as key wildlife habitat are warming up. As recent droughts and water struggles in the west have demonstrated, water is a critical resource at the mercy of climate change. Freshwater and native fish species face an increased risk of extinction, as do the species that depend on them for food. Trout, in particular, are adapted to extremely cold water and are seeing their habitats warm over time. Opportunities for fishing and hunting are limited now that many fish species are relocating and declining.
  • Coastal ecosystems are on the decline. Coastal zones are vulnerable to ocean acidification, rises in sea level and temperature, stronger storms and coral reef bleaching. Invasive species that do not survive in cold waters are now adapting to temperature changes and competing with native species. Mangrove trees in Florida and snow crabs in Alaska are species that have already begun to decline because of climate change effects. Frequent flooding due to rising sea levels poses a huge threat to communities that live near the ocean, especially as weather events become more severe and common.

Above all, the IPCC reports that our public lands are changing. These changes are occurring at an alarmingly fast rate, putting ecosystems in many different regions at risk of extinction. Our impact on these fragile communities will depend on how we interact with them.

The Wilderness Society is committed to making sure our lands, and the plants and animals that inhabit them, are prepared for an inevitably changing climate. Whether that means helping to influence land management decisions or responsibly siting clean energy projects, we’re working to address the causes and consequences of climate change that are made clear in the most recent report.

Learn more about The Wilderness Society's work on climate change