Under a changing climate, devising strategies to help stakeholders adapt to alterations to ecosystems and their services is of utmost importance. In western North America, diminished snowpack and river flows are causing relatively gradual, homogeneous (system-wide) changes in ecosystems and services. In addition, increased climate variability is also accelerating the incidence of abrupt and patchy disturbances such as fires, floods and droughts. This paper posits that two key variables often considered in landscape ecology—the rate of change and the degree of patchiness of change—can aid in developing climate change adaptation strategies. We use two examples from the “borderland” region of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. In piñon-juniper woodland die-offs that occurred in the southwestern United States during the 2000s, ecosystem services suddenly crashed in some parts of the system while remaining unaffected in other locations. The precise timing and location of die-offs was uncertain. On the other hand, slower, homogeneous change, such as the expected declines in water supply to the Colorado River delta, will likely impact the entire ecosystem, with ecosystem services everywhere in the delta subject to alteration, and all users likely exposed. The rapidity and spatial heterogeneity of faster, patchy climate change exemplified by tree die-off suggests that decision-makers and local stakeholders would be wise to operate under a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance,” and implement adaptation strategies that allow ecosystem service users to equitably share the risk of sudden loss of ecosystem services before actual ecosystem changes occur. On the other hand, in the case of slower, homogeneous, system-wide impacts to ecosystem services as exemplified by the Colorado River delta, adaptation strategies can be implemented after the changes begin, but will require a fundamental rethinking of how ecosystems and services are used and valued. In sum, understanding how the rate of change and degree of patchiness of change will constrain adaptive options is a critical consideration in preparing for climate change.
Additional publication details
Key landscape ecology metrics for assessing climate change adaptation options: rate of change and patchiness of impacts