Nature's Kodak moment

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"You can't get there from here," is an old Vermont idiom that reflects the challenges of our mountainous topography. However, crisis result when the folksy saying becomes reality, like it did for communities that became islands due to road washouts from tropical storm Irene.

For nature, the ability to get there from here can be matter of survival. Animals, plants, fungi--all need to move between habitats to survive over time, and to respond to a changing environment. Some plants with windborne seeds can easily move great distances. Some wildlife, like black bears also have a large range but can be thwarted by man-made barriers like freeways or other development. Species with limited mobility, like rare wood turtles, can be more critically impacted by these types of development barriers. Generally, when movement-restricting development surrounds habitats, nature suffers, and species can decline or disappear entirely. Unfortunately, climate change will result in dramatic habitat changes that will make removing barriers to movement crucial as species shift their ranges to adapt.

I grew up in the 1970's when the advertising phrase "Kodak moment" became the slogan for capturing a memorable event on film. Today, the phrase has assumed an altogether different meaning. "Kodak moment" now signifies the failure of a business to adapt to rapidly changing conditions—in this case, the 5th most valuable brand in the world became bankrupt due to the advent of digital technology.

Lessons from failures to adapt are becoming increasingly important to heed as global climate change starts to shape and influence our world. Conservation scientists are now puzzling over how best to act to help nature adapt, as the disruptive potential of climate change threatens the nature that we know and love in Vermont.

Conservation science tells us that for species to survive, they will need to move or shift ranges over great distances. To do so successfully and to prepare for unforeseeable threats, they are going to need better connected habitat such as forests. No one could have predicted the recent decline in moose populations from an increase in ticks caused by a warming climate. We have a responsibility to help species adapt by providing high quality habitat connections so they can survive.

Dartmouth climatologist Eric Osterberg likes to emphasize that following a business-as-usual scenario, our future climate will be warmer than the present by as much as today's climate is warmer than the last ice age--when Lake Champlain was buried by ice sheets as much as a mile and a half thick. In fact, current warming is occurring at a rate 100-times faster than after the last ice age. This is an astonishing and admittedly frightening amount of anticipated change. Even if we succeed in drastically reducing carbon emissions the climate will still warm to a substantial, habitat-altering degree.

One clear implication is that nature as we know it faces its own Kodak moment. Climate change will force species to try to move and shift habitats through a landscape so altered by humans that many will have great difficulty doing so. Nature will only be able to adapt if we can help all sorts of species to "get there from here." Conservation work will need to focus on the connections between habitats and not merely protect conservation islands.

Conservationists are just starting to orient their work towards increasing habitat connectivity for plants and animals to help them respond to a changing world. In Vermont, partnerships like the Staying Connected Initiative are working on important demonstration projects to better connect habitat across river valleys and roads. Collaborative working relationships between public agencies, conservation organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, and municipalities are being forged to advance this critical work at a scale that creates real impact.

If we fail to plan and act so that nature can adapt to climate change, nature as we know it will almost certainly encounter its own "Kodak moment," even if we succeed in limiting our carbon emissions. Science shows us that we can make a difference by protecting and restoring habitat connections across the landscape that we have fragmented. We must answer this call to let nature survive and thrive in all its richness and biodiversity even in the face of a changing climate.

Paul Marangelo is a Conservation Ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Vermont

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