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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

NE CASC Launches Nine New Projects

Tuesday, August 31, 2021
The Brown-Headed Nuthatch

The Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center has awarded $3,000,000 to NE CASC university consortium institutions, USGS Science Centers, and other partners to initiate new research that will guide regional climate adaptation initiatives supporting natural and cultural resource management.

Nine projects were selected to meet four science priority areas focused on expanding climate science for fish and wildlife management, stewardship of coastal habitats, coupling freshwater and terrestrial systems, and climate mediated changes in invasive plants, pests, and pathogens.

A complete listing of these newly launched projects is provided below.

Project Descriptions

Project 1: Understanding Brook Trout Persistence in Warming Streams
Cold-water adapted Brook Trout were historically widely distributed – ranging from northern Quebec to Georgia, and from the Atlantic Ocean to Manitoba in the north, and along the Appalachian ridge in the south. However, studies show that due to factors associated with climate change, such as increased stream temperature and changing water flow, the number of streams containing Brook Trout is declining. Although efforts have been made to protect and restore this cold-water fish at local levels, the extent that temperature increases will vary within and across different streams and the ability of Brook Trout to seek cold-water refugia or adapt to these increasing stream temperatures currently remains unclear. The goal of this project is to examine to what degree Brook Trout utilize cold-water refugia in warming streams. Stream temperatures will be monitored, and individual fish will be implanted with a tag that records the water temperature fish are experiencing in both historically cold and warm streams. After collecting temperature data fish experience in the streams, the fish will be thermally challenged in a laboratory setting to measure tolerance and stress response to determine if past thermal experience in the wild affects subsequent thermal performance. This research will be conducted in four small streams located in Western Massachusetts. However, because the work will occur across a large thermal gradient of stream temperatures, the results will be applicable across the entire range of Brook Trout. This project will allow scientists to determine whether Brook Trout are seeking out cold spots in warm streams, adapting to warming conditions, or some combination of the two. Results can help resource managers better understand how Brook Trout populations may persist as stream temperatures continue to rise.


Project 2: Informing Management of Waterfowl Harvest under Climate Change
The ability to effectively manage wildlife in North America is founded in an understanding of how human actions and the environment influence wildlife populations. Current management practices are informed by population monitoring data from the past to determine key ecological relationships and make predictions about future population status. In most cases, including the regulation of waterfowl hunting in North America, these forecasts assume that the relationships we observed in the past will remain the same in the future. However, climate change is influencing wildlife populations in many dynamic and uncertain ways, leading to a situation in which our observations of the past are poor predictors of the future. If managers continue to use the existing frameworks to set waterfowl hunting regulations without accounting for climate change, there is the potential for under- or over-harvesting which would negatively affect waterfowl populations and hunters across North America. This project will lay the theoretical groundwork for incorporating climate change projections into the current adaptive harvest management frameworks used to set U.S. hunting regulations for North American waterfowl. The project team will develop an optimization tool that will allow resource managers to evaluate the potential costs of continuing to use existing models to inform hunting regulations despite evidence of climate change effects on populations. The final product of this work will be a guidance document that summarizes current knowledge about the effects of climate change on waterfowl populations, the properties of resource management policies that account for climate change, and the steps needed to implement such policies. This work will directly support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their role of setting hunting regulations and will help to ensure sustainable harvest opportunities of these public trust species.


Project 3: Mapping Salt Marsh Response to Sea Level Rise and Evaluating 'Runneling' as an Adaptation Technique to Inform Wildlife Habitat Management in New England
Loss of saltmarsh habitat is one of the biggest threats to coastal sustainability in the Northeast. Salt marsh has been identified as an essential fish and wildlife habitat, and loss of saltmarsh corresponds with precipitous declines in marsh-dependent wildlife. For example, the global population of Saltmarsh Sparrow is predicted to collapse within the next 50 years after experiencing a 9% annual decline across the northeastern U.S. Resource managers require tools to help restore salt marsh habitat for wildlife by adapting marshes to climate change-driven sea level rise. However, adaptation approaches need to be tested and evaluated before widespread application. Researchers are testing a rapidly emerging sea level rise adaptation-technique called “runnelling”, and developing science-based tools to target marshes most important for wildlife. Runnels are micro-channels created to help restore tidal drainage in drowning marshes. Stored water that is unable to drain from marshes kills marsh vegetation, exposing sediments to waves, increasing erosion, and furthering marsh loss. However, no data are available describing runnel construction or outcomes for wildlife, and few tools are available to identify marshes and high priority habitat best suited for restoration using runnels. In this study, researchers will address this need by expanding runnel evaluation in marshes to include information on wildlife, identifying marshes that meet criteria suitable for use of runnels as an adaptation approach, and piloting a tool to identify priority wildlife habitat using remotely-sensed data. This project helps land and resource managers determine how to best plan, implement, and evaluate runnelling as an emerging method to adapt salt marsh habitats to rising sea levels and increasing coastal storm impacts. The maps, tools, and data resulting from this work will help managers better protect salt marsh and wildlife in the face of climate change-driven sea level rise.  


Project 4: Dynamic Climate Adaptation for Wetland Restoration and Coastal Communities on Lake Ontario
Residents living along the coast of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have experienced two record-setting floods in the last three years (2017, 2019). These floods caused tremendous property damage and disruptions to the regional economy. The water levels on Lake Ontario are influenced by the operations of the Moses Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence River. These operations are determined by the International Joint Commission (IJC) and are required to balance a number of competing objectives (e.g., navigation, flood control, recreational boating, hydropower). Recently, the IJC altered the operational plan in order to help restore coastal wetlands. The floods of 2017 and 2019 followed soon after, and communities attribute the flooding to the new plan. However, rainfall also set records in 2017 and 2019, and there are physical limits to how much flooding can be prevented by the dam. Regional rainfall and temperatures have also been trending upward for decades, leading to changes in the lake’s hydrology. The 2017 and 2019 floods and trends in regional climate highlight the importance of answering the following questions: 1) How should water levels on Lake Ontario be managed to balance stakeholder needs as the climate continues to change? and 2) What actions should local shoreline communities take to protect themselves from high and low water levels, regardless of the management plan in place? This project seeks to answer these questions. We will use computational modeling to explore how and when lake level management should change to buffer the impacts of climate change. In addition, we will use social science to identify barriers that prevent local communities from enacting their own protective actions, and strategies to overcome these barriers. In tandem, our results will help the Lake Ontario community as a whole become better prepared for continued changes in regional climate.


Project 5: A Decision Support System for Estimating Changes in Extreme Floods and Droughts in the Northeast
In a climate-altered future, both floods and droughts are forecasted to occur with greater frequency and, in many cases, to be more extreme. These changes will increase stresses on both cities and natural systems. Increased flooding can harm infrastructure designed to support human needs (like bridges, culverts, and other structures) and natural systems that support fish and wildlife. Increased drought can have direct impacts on fish and wildlife, increasing river and lake temperatures, and stranding species in water-short systems. This project will develop a decision support system (DSS) that helps resource managers in New England estimate the recurrence of future extreme hydrologic events (floods and droughts), directly incorporating the impacts of future climate change. The DSS expands previous regional and state studies performed by the NECASC and tools created by the USGS. The researchers will convene a working group composed of state and federal resource managers who are responsible for mitigating the impacts of climate change and extreme hydrologic events on fish and wildlife. Informed by this working group, the researchers will develop a DSS that integrates recent USGS techniques for estimating daily streamflow in unregulated, ungaged streams with NE CASC research on future changes in climate-impacted extreme flows. The DSS will guide resource managers in estimating the recurrence intervals of future floods and droughts for user specified locations, including ungaged stream locations. This research integrates three components to estimate expected climate impacts on flood and droughts: 1) forecasts from climate models, 2) physical basin characteristics, 3) and hydrologic models. The results of this research will be displayed in a simple to implement user-interface that illustrates climate change impacts for the scale most appropriate for decision making, whether it be for individual sites, larger watersheds, states, or entire river basins.


Project 6: Identifying Vulnerable Ecosystems & Supporting Climate-Smart Strategies to Address Invasive Species under Climate Change
Invasive species establish outside of their native range, spread, and negatively impact ecosystems and economies. As temperatures rise, many invasive plants can spread into regions that were previously too cold for their survival. For example, kudzu, ‘the vine that ate the south’, was previously limited to mid-Atlantic states, but has recently started spreading in New Jersey and is expected to become invasive farther north. While scientists know of many of the invasive species expanding into the northeastern U.S., they do not know where those species are likely to become abundant and how they will impact vulnerable native ecosystems due to climate change. There are also currently no strategies to manage emerging invasive species impacts and promote resilience in vulnerable ecosystems. Once invasive species have gained a foothold and become abundant, the chance to prevent or eradicate them is gone.  The most cost-effective way to protect ecosystems is to stop invasive species before they arrive. It is essential that scientists proactively identify vulnerable ecosystems and help resource managers build adaptation strategies. This project is using spatial modeling to project the potential abundance of 50 high-impact invasive plants by 2050. The research team will use this information to map ecosystems vulnerable to abundant invasions across the Northeast region. Guidelines will be further synthesized for climate-driven management of invasive species and climate change in order to inform adaptive management and monitoring in these vulnerable ecosystems. The resulting vulnerability assessments and management recommendations will directly inform management of collaborators in the Northeast Regional Invasive Species & Climate Change (RISCC) Management Network, the New York Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISMs) and Federal, state, and non-governmental organizations focused on conservation (including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies). This work will lead to more proactive and successful invasive plant management in a changing climate.


Project 7: Rethinking Lake Management for Invasive Plants under Future Climate: Sensitivity of Lake Ecosystems to Winter Water Level Drawdowns
Small lakes are important to local economies as sources of water supply and places of recreation. Commonly, lakes are considered more desirable for recreation if they are free of the thick weedy vegetation, often comprised of invasive species, that grows around the lake edge. This vegetation makes it difficult to launch boats and swim. In order to reduce this vegetation, a common technique in the Northeast and Midwest U.S. is a ‘winter drawdown’ . In a winter drawdown, the lake level is artificially lowered (via controls in a dam) during the winter to expose shoreline vegetation to freezing conditions, thereby killing them and preserving recreational value of the lake. However, this practice can impact both water quality (including potentially increasing the prevalence of harmful algal blooms) and native aquatic plants and animals in lakes. Moreover, studies show that winter drawdowns are not always effective at killing nuisance and invasive plants. Almost no research has been done to study how winter drawdowns interact with climate. Wet years, droughts, and heavy snow winters will all have different effects on the success of the winter drawdown at killing vegetation and maintaining lake ecosystems. The project scientists will specifically investigate winter drawdown standard practices and understand how, when, and why winter drawdowns can be better managed in differing climates. The research team will also map winter drawdown lakes across the entire Northeast and Midwest for the first time, providing policy makers with a first-ever estimate of the total number of winter drawdown lakes, the total amount of water released by these lakes (via new hydrology models the team will build), and the prevalence of harmful algal blooms. This research will give state and local governments and lake managers a much-needed scientific basis for managing lakes. Governments and resource managers will ideally be able to optimize water quality and vegetation for both human use and ecosystems under future climates.


Project 8: Enhancing the Reliability and Usability of Climate Change Information for Wildlife Action Plans in the Northeastern United States
The northeastern U.S. is home to a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, leading to a variety of interactions occurring between species and climate on multiple scales. Therefore, the most effective strategy to produce and deliver scientific climate information to resource managers is to align the scales of climate projections with the scales of resource management actions. While available downscaled climate data provides information at very fine resolutions (4-6 km), its usability in helping management decisions and its reliability in capturing various regional weather and climate metrics remain unclear. The goal of this project is for researchers to collaborate with State Wildlife Action Plan coordinators to produce reliable and usable climate change projections at spatial and temporal scales relevant for informing mangement decisions. This work will be done for the 13 states in the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies region. The project team will also compare existing downscaled datasets to highlight their strengths and weaknesses in capturing relevant climate variables, especially extreme precipitation, in the Northeast. This project will use data from the latest generation of climate models to produce climate change projections spanning the 21st century for a diverse set of ecologically-relevant variables (such as soil moisture). The resulting information will be presented in the form of graphics, descriptive summaries, and case studies and will also include guidance on how the projections should be interpreted and used in impact assessments. While the proposed research is designed to inform fish and wildlife management in the Northeast, the scientific output from this project should be a useful resource for other researchers, modelers, and practitioners in the Northeast to understand species’ vulnerabilities at various scales. This work will also help regional resource managers determine how to best plan, implement, and evaluate temperature, precipitation and other climate variables, as well as related uncertainties, on a finer scale to inform the conservation and management of fish and wildlife species.


Project 9: Developing Strategies for Stakeholder Engagement and Climate Extension Services in the CASC Network: A Case Study in the NE CASC
Actionable science and stakeholder engagement are essential pillars in the science agenda of the eight USGS Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers and its national headquarters. Collaboration with and product delivery to the Department of the Interior and other resource agencies have been central to the Centers’ mission. The effective engagement of stakeholders in defining science needs, designing research projects, interpreting project results, and communicating these results to the public have contributed to the unique successes of the Centers in developing actionable science. However, there is still significant opportunity to improve the engagement of stakeholders in climate adaptation science and to create realistic metrics of success. The primary goal of this project is to improve the NE CASC’s ability to effectively engage our stakeholders and to deliver actionable climate adaptation science. This goal will be accomplished through four tasks: 1) Identify factors important to successful co-production of actionable science, stakeholder engagement, and the delivery of climate extension services in the NE CASC (identified through literature reviews, past evaluations performed by the NECASC, and independent reviews of past NE CASC projects), 2) Illustrate the role these factors play in project success by evaluating stakeholder engagement and helping stakeholders understand climate change impacts in the NE CASC’s Cycle I research (analysis of interviews with stakeholders and scientists); 3) Develop a User’s Guide to stakeholder engagement and delivery of actionable science for future NE CASC activities that covers topics ranging from project planning to final project evaluation; and 4) Apply the successful techniques identified in the User’s Guide to two or more recently initiated projects.