Adapting to Changing Conditions

July 2020

Over and over again, nature adapts to changing conditions. But as both the pace of change and the scope of what is changing increase, USDA Forest Service science is helping land managers negotiate the critical transition between the way things are and way things will be. In July, our feature stories introduce a climate change specialist working with land managers to prepare forests for future conditions; research that suggests a common bird may become less common; and a partnership that is helping ensure that the region’s agriculture and forests remain healthy and productive.

Environmental Education

Screenshot of Forest Service Climate Toola and Data Dashboard.USDA Forest Service
Climate Tools and Data

Visit our data dashboard to explore climate change and adaptation techniques with students in your region.

Featured Employee

Stephen Handler

Stephen Handler Took the Scenic Route on his Path to Becoming a Climate Change Specialist.  Here he is sitting on a tree stump near a wooded area. Photo by Christine Handler, used with permission.As a child in east-central Iowa, Stephen Handler was more interested in the workings of the human mind than he was in how the planet works. While he spent a lot of time outside, he was more often playing football or basketball and riding a bicycle than investigating the natural world. “I wasn’t one of those kids who always knew they wanted to be in forestry,” he said. A college course on ecology and evolution – and an inspirational professor – changed everything.

Today, Handler is a climate change specialist with Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, or NIACS, a collaboration of the USDA Forest Service with universities, private industry and a non-government organization. Based in Houghton, Mich., Handler’s work includes building partnerships, coordinating forest vulnerability assessments, planning outreach and education events, and collaborating with land managers in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota on real-world adaptation demonstration projects.

Handler’s path from Iowa to Michigan included breathtaking scenery and pivotal people. His first job with the Forest Service was as a seasonal worker clearing trails in Idaho; hiking forest trails all day was the best part of the job. In his next seasonal position, Handler went to Golden Gate National Park in California and became interested in habitat restoration, which led him to graduate school.

At the University of Montana, he heard a dynamic guest speaker’s presentation on using carbon offset revenue to fund the restoration of degraded forests, and Handler was fascinated. He talked his way into a job with the speaker’s company and appreciated the opportunity to be part of a small company’s roller coaster ride through the early days of the carbon offset industry.

The opportunity to move from working on climate mitigation in the private sector to working on climate adaptation with the Forest Service drew Handler to Houghton; relocating closer to his twin brother and his family was another draw to the Upper Peninsula. His position has allowed him to use his experience in habitat restoration and climate, and it has also motivated him to develop new skills, such as public speaking. “If you’d have talked to me 20 years ago, that would have been the last thing I wanted to do,” Handler said.

Still early in his career with the Forest Service, Handler is grateful for the unexpected twists in his career and the people who inspired those twists. “You have to follow those beacons that come into your life,” Handler said.

More about Stephen Handler >>

Featured Research

Common Bird Species Becoming Less Common

Adult Acadian flycatcher on nest. Photo by Andrew Cox, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, used with permission.Climate change projections help scientists anticipate how changes will impact wildlife and what conservation actions can be taken to reduce negative effects. Results of a study indicate that a warmer future may lead to a common Midwestern songbird becoming considerably less common. The decline is linked to complex effects of climate warming on population ecology.   

Frank Thompson, a research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station, and his collaborators used population models to estimate effects of climate change on annual breeding productivity and population viability of the Acadian flycatcher. Projections were made through the year 2100 and across the 96-million-acre Central Hardwoods region. 

Scientists drew on 20 years of research on nesting songbirds and empirically derived relationships between songbird breeding productivity and weather for this study.  Under severe warming projections, researchers found that flycatchers breeding in many areas of the Central Hardwoods region would produce less than one fledgling per female per year by 2100.

“With breeding productivity reduced to this extent, this currently abundant species will suffer population declines substantial enough to pose a significant risk of quasi-extinction from the region in the twenty-first century,” according to Thompson.  In addition to changes in forest habitat that would affect flycatchers, warmer temperatures are likely to increase nest predation, especially by snakes, which are a significant predator on Acadian flycatcher nests.

“Our study focused on flycatchers, but many songbirds face the same predators and are also susceptible to similar temperature effects,” Thompson said.  “Our work underscores the threat climate change poses to entire populations. Many factors affecting flycatcher populations are likely to change over that time period, so we don’t realistically expect flycatcher populations to react exactly as we predicted. However, our study illustrates a very important point, which is that climate change can affect populations in very complicated ways with potentially severe consequences to wildlife.”

More information >>

Featured Partnership

USDA Climate Hubs: Collaborating to Build Resiliency to Climate Variability

NRCS Economist and Sustainable Agriculture Outreach Specialist at the University of Vermont take a closer look at a field of Milkweed at Borderview Farm in Alburgh, VT for an economic case study. Photo is part of a growing network of climate-informed demonstration sites is designed to take you to the field and make you feel 'As If You Were There' by the USDA Northeast Climate Hub. Photo credit: Karrah Kwasnik, USDA Northeast Climate Hub.

Since 2014, the USDA Climate Hubs have been developing and delivering resources to help farmers and forest land managers understand the impacts of climate change. The Hubs focus on translating climate science and tackling challenges tied to increasing weather variability. The USDA Climate Hubs provide practical, science-based information at both national and regional levels. Tools, technologies, and information are all key Hub products that support climate adaptation and mitigation decision-making.

Ten hubs have been established where USDA agencies work hand in hand with a diversity of partners to provide regionally specific strategies to manage climate-related impacts such as droughts, extreme weather events, and changing growing seasons. Moreover, the Climate Hubs provide a forum for residents and technical experts alike to discuss risk management and adaptation planning.

The Northern Research Station provides lead coordination for the Northern Forests and Northeast Climate Hubs. In both unique landscapes, NRS scientists are building partnerships across the public-private continuum to engage local communities and support climate-informed planning efforts.

“Through convening scientists, agricultural advisors and producers we are working to enhance the state of knowledge on a range of climate adaptation and mitigation topics.” said Erin Lane, Coordinator for the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, “Through these collaborations, we discover management approaches that make environmental and economic sense.”

Lane is dedicated to engaging with others in innovative and interactive ways to understand climate science and the effects of changing conditions. Together with partners from the University of Delaware, the Hub has developed a series of 360° virtual field tours to showcase real world examples of how people are dealing with, and adapting to, changes.

“The Northeast Climate Hub translates climate science and research into usable products and tools for producers, land managers, and technical service providers,” said Jennifer Volk, Environmental Quality and Management Extension Specialist at University of Delaware. “These climate mitigation and adaptation resources help the agriculture and forestry sectors improve their resilience to the impacts they are experiencing from our changing climate.”

This is one of many examples of how the Northern Resource Station, through the Climate Hubs, is supporting science-based and locally driven efforts to prepare for a changing future.

Last updated: 07/01/2020