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Study Finds Climate Change ‘Strongholds’

June 9, 2012
By SARAH HARMON Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WEST VIRGINIA - A Nature Conservancy study released this week identified environmental "strongholds" that might serve as a source of protection against the effects of rising temperatures.

The study titled "Resilient Sites for Terrestrial Conservation" analyzed 156 million acres of land in the northeastern United States and southeast Canada in search for pockets of diverse ecosystems that are resistant to climate change. It was estimated that parts of West Virginia's Northern Panhandle could serve as strongholds, but no firm data has yet been collected. The study will be conducted in the Northern Panhandle within the next year.

The strongholds would provide habitat to a variety of plants and animals and serve as a source of clean drinking water and other resources critical for human survival.

Article Photos

Photo by Kent Mason
Dolly Sods in eastern West Virginia is one of the stronghold landscapes identified in the Nature Conservancy study.

"What we asked was as the world changes from climate change, what places are most likely to change less and are going to continue to have healthy functional forest and support a rich variety of plant and animal life," Rodney Bartgis, state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said. "There will be changes in these places, but it will change less."

The study found an array of climate change resistant ecosystems in the Appalachian Mountain Range. Familiar sites in West Virginia such as the Dolly Sods wilderness, the New River Gorge and the Cranberry Wilderness were all identified for having complex landscapes that would support a variety of species.

"It helps demonstrate how important our Appalachian landscape is to the future health of our eastern forest and North America," Bartgis said.

In addition, the study identified areas in the Chesapeake Bay lowland, the high Allegheny plateau, lower New England, northern Appalachia and the north Atlantic coast. The American Northeast includes the geological settings of coastal sands, limestone valleys, shale slopes, granite summits and silt floodplains.

Bartgis said the study measured the resilience of landscapes by ecological complexity, the variation of geology, elevation changes and the amount of different kinds of landforms such as valleys, mountaintops and caves. Areas most likely to resist change have a variety of features such as forests, wetlands and mountain ranges.

Geological diversity creates more opportunities for plants and animals to exist, especially species that may be forced to migrate to these areas from their original habitats. The diversity of plants and animals is correlated to the number of geological settings, the amount of limestone, the latitude and the elevation range.

In order for these areas to remain climate change resistant, they must be free of artificial barriers including roads, housing developments, pipelines and other infrastructure that restrict natural movements of the different species. Areas free of these barriers or that have migratory corridors are called permeable landscapes. Permeable landscapes allow natural water flow to occur as well.

"You're doing the right thing if you conserve these places in the long term - it's conserving land and doing restoration like restoring forests to help keep these places intact," Bartgis said. "Also, investments and decisions that would keep these areas from being further harmed are also important - taking steps making sure we don't have inappropriate energy development, trying to make decisions that don't start damaging these places."

The Nature Conservancy plans to continue the study in the southeastern U.S and eventually the entire country. The study is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

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