Summarizing components of U.S. Department of the Interior vulnerability assessments to focus climate adaptation planning

Open-File Report 2015-1110
By: , and 



A secretarial order identified climate adaptation as a critical performance objective for future management of U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) lands and resources in response to global change. Vulnerability assessments can inform climate adaptation planning by providing insight into what natural resources are most at risk and why. Three components of vulnerability—exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity—were defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as necessary for identifying climate adaptation strategies and actions. In 2011, the DOI requested all internal bureaus report ongoing or completed vulnerability assessments about a defined range of assessment targets or climate-related threats. Assessment targets were defined as freshwater resources, landscapes and wildlife habitat, native and cultural resources, and ocean health. Climate-related threats were defined as invasive species, wildfire risk, sea-level rise, and melting ice and permafrost. Four hundred and three projects were reported, but the original DOI survey did not specify that information be provided on exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity collectively as part of the request, and it was unclear which projects adhered to the framework recommended by the IPCC. Therefore, the U.S. Geological Survey National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center conducted a supplemental survey to determine how frequently each of the three vulnerability components was assessed. Information was categorized for 124 of the 403 reported projects (30.8 percent) based on the three vulnerability components, and it was discovered that exposure was the most common component assessed (87.9 percent), followed by sensitivity (68.5 percent) and adaptive capacity (33.1 percent). The majority of projects did not fully assess vulnerability; projects focused on landscapes/wildlife habitats and sea-level rise were among the minority that simultaneously addressed all three vulnerability components. To maintain consistency with the IPCC definition of vulnerability, DOI may want to focus initial climate adaptation planning only on the outcomes of studies that comprehensively address vulnerability as inclusive of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Although the present study results are preliminary and used an unstructured survey design, they illustrate the importance of a comprehensive and consistent vulnerability definition and of using information on vulnerability components in DOI surveys to ensure relevant data are used to identify adaptation options.

Suggested Citation

Thompson, L.M., Staudinger, M.D., and Carter, S.L., 2015, Summarizing components of U.S. Department of the Interior vulnerability assessments to focus climate adaptation planning: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2015–1110, 14 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results and Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Appendix A. Text distributed to DOI agencies for the initial data call on climate change vulnerability  assessments
  • Appendix B. Questionnaire used for the supplemental DOI vulnerability assessment survey
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Summarizing components of U.S. Department of the Interior vulnerability assessments to focus climate adaptation planning
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2015-1110
DOI 10.3133/ofr20151110
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, National Climate Adaptation Science Center
Description iii, 14 p.
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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