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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Open-File Report: Summarizing components of U.S. Department of the Interior vulnerability assessments to focus climate adaptation planning


Laura Thompson

Michelle Staudinger

Shawn Carter

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:


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.