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Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science

What is Adaptation?

In terms of forest management, adaptation is taking action to enhance the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change and its effects.  Adaptation actions can be used to reduce or avoid loss of forest cover, declines in forest productivity, alterations to ecosystem processes, reductions in the environmental benefits that forests provide to people (such as wildlife, recreation, and wood products), and many other potential impacts on forests. There are three broad categories of actions:

  • Resistance actions improve the defenses of the forest against anticipated changes or directly defend the forest against disturbance in order to maintain relatively unchanged conditions.
  • Resilience actions accommodate some degree of change, but encourage a return to prior conditions after a disturbance, either naturally or through management.
  • Response actions intentionally accommodate change and enable ecosystems to adaptively respond to changing and new conditions. Ecosystems adapt to future conditions, rather than being unprepared for rapid and catastrophic changes.

Principles for Adaptation

Land managers already have many tools available to manage forests for a variety of goals while reducing insect damage, fire risk, or other threats. To begin to address climate change, however, a different perspective will be needed to expand management thinking to consider new issues, spatial scales, timing, and prioritization of efforts. The following principles can serve as a starting point for this perspective:

  • Prioritization and triage: It will be increasingly important to prioritize actions for adaptation based on vulnerability and the likelihood that actions to reduce vulnerability will be effective.
  • Flexible and adaptive management: Adaptive management provides a decisionmaking framework that maintains flexibility and incorporates new knowledge over time.
  • “No regrets” decisions: Actions that result in a wide variety of benefits under multiple scenarios and have little or no risk may be initial places to look for near term implementation.
  • Precautionary actions: Where vulnerability is high, precautionary actions to reduce risk in the near-term, even with existing uncertainty, may be extremely important.
  • Variability and uncertainty: Increased climate variability in space and time is equally important as changes in average temperature and precipitation.
  • Integrating mitigation: Many adaptation actions are complementary with actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and actions to adapt forests to future conditions can help maintain and increase their ability to sequester carbon.

To learn more about climate change adaptation, or to explore tools and resources for climate change adaptation, visit the Climate Change Resource Center.  For on-the-ground examples of adaptation, visit the Climate Change Response Framework site.

Additional Resources

Joyce, L.A.; Blate, G.M.; Littell, J.S.; McNulty, S.G.; Millar, C.I.; Moser, S.C.; Neilson, R.P.; O’Halloran, K.; Peterson, D.L. 2008. National Forests. In: S. H. Julius, J. M. West, (eds.), J. S. Baron, L. A. Joyce, P. Kareiva, B. D. Keller, M. A. Palmer, C. H. Peterson, J. M. Scott, eds. Preliminary review of adaptation options for climate-sensitive ecosystems and resources. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA. (pdf)

Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: Managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications. 17(8):2145-2151.

Peterson, D.L.; Millar, C.I.; Joyce, L.A.; Furniss, M.J.; Halofsky, J.E.; Neilson, R.P.; Morelli, T.L. 2011. Responding to climate change on national forests: a guidebook for developing adaptation options. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-855. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. 109. (pdf)


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Last Modified: 03/28/2012