How do you manage for "natural" conditions when humans have twisted nature all out of pitch? If you're trying to make decisions in an unprecedented situation, what experience do you lean on?
These are a couple of the underlying concerns in a recent report from the federal Climate Change Science Program. The report focuses on climate-sensitive "thresholds" within ecosystems -- the points at which changes in precipitation, temperature, or other climatic variables induce dramatic and persistent shifts in biological systems.
It's a pressing topic. The document discusses a potential crash in North American waterfowl populations, massive timber die-offs, and the woes of thawing permafrost, but it's not all horror stories. Its authors also offer some interesting discussion of the question: how do we manage for climate change? They don't come up with any panaceas, but they do dig a little deeper into one thorny part of the general dilemma.
To quote the document:
There is increasing recognition that small changes in climate can trigger major, abrupt, responses in ecosystems when a threshold is crossed. The potential for sudden, unanticipated shifts in ecosystem dynamics make resource planning, preparation, and management intensely difficult. These sudden changes to ecosystems and the goods and services they provide are not well understood, but they are extremely important if natural resource managers are to succeed in developing adaptation strategies in a changing world.
To stave off the effects of such ecological thresholds, the report's authors suggest some basic measures: learn more about tipping points and how to avoid triggering them; toss out old models that assume ecosystems usually change in a linear manner; hope for the best but prepare society for the worst.
And the report includes more intriguing elements as well. Such as this:
In a world being altered by climate change, natural resource managers may ... have to be increasingly nimble, and adjust their goals for desired states of resources away from static, historic benchmarks and focus on increased resilience, biodiversity, and adaptive capacity as measures of success.
Though, to judge from the rest of the report, when the authors mention "biodiversity" they're describing the assortment of species that inhabit an area before threshold changes set in, not the new mix that rolls in afterward.
And on a final note:
Complex situations like those involving thresholds tend to be beyond the limits of existing predictive capabilities. The end result is surprises for managers.
Most of the report rings with proactive suggestions. There's not much mention of the possibility that our future "predictive capabilities" might not prove much more effective than our current ones. If that ends up being the case, the question becomes: how can we manage something we hardly understand?
For more High Country News coverage on such climate change issues click here.