Using Interior Alaska's boreal forests as a case study, a team of scientists led by University of Alaska Fairbanks ecologist F. Stuart (Terry) Chapin III recently offered four policy strategies for sustaining people and the environment as both face a dramatically warming climate.
Chapin, a professor at the Institute of Arctic Biology and member of the National Academy of Sciences, is the lead author in an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, anthropologists, an economist, a historian and a political scientist that published the recommendations in a recent issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The authors identified Alaska as a particularly appropriate place to apply their strategies because ecosystem services such as water, food, and fuel, which are key processes that mediate climate effects on society, are critical to the sustainability of rural livelihoods and culture.
In Alaska, climate warming has triggered more intense and extensive wildfires, bark beetle outbreaks, lowered regional water tables, increased permafrost thaw and subsequent thermokarsts, which contribute to the failure of roads, homes and other infrastructure.
"We took stock of these changes and from that we assessed what society is going to need to respond to these changes," said Gary Kofinas, co-author and coordinator of the Resilience and Adaptation Program at UAF. The policy recommendations, Kofinas said, address "... what we need to do and what can we do to retain the properties of the social and ecological systems in which we live."
The first strategy focuses on enhancing humans' adaptability to a warming climate by integrating science and technology with local knowledge, and by integrating science, management and local needs using what the authors call adaptive management and governance.
The second strategy focuses on enhancing the resiliency of people and the environment to significant social and ecological change. By increasing biological, cultural, and economic diversity the authors argue that humans will have more options for adapting to changes and that such diversity can act as a buffer from change.
The third strategy focuses on reducing human and environmental vulnerability by effectively communicating to the public how the effects of high-latitude (Arctic) climate warming are linked to their low-latitude causes. "The climate change impacts being experienced in Alaska can be responded to here, but most of their causes need to be addressed at the national or international level," said co-author Martin Robards, a UAF RAP Ph.D. student. Reducing the anthropogenic (human-caused) contribution to climate warming - greenhouse gas emissions - is the key to mitigating climate change-related vulnerability in Interior Alaska," write the authors.
The fourth strategy is to facilitate transformation. "People typically prefer to adopt an accustomed life, rather than perpetually adapting to sudden and rapid changes," Robards said. "Transformation is the ability of people to look at the changing world and their place in it in new and unknown ways." For example, rising oil prices makes transforming an Alaska village from diesel-based fuel to biomass more feasible.
Despite the challenges of sustaining the beneficial attributes of complex social-ecological systems in the face of multiple large-scale directional changes, including climate warming, the authors conclude that each of the strategies provides societal benefits and suggest that all be pursued simultaneously.
Additional authors: Amy L. Lovecraft, UAF; Erika S. Zavaleta, University of California, Santa Cruz; Joanna Nelson, UCSC; Sarah F. Trainor, IAB, UAF; Garry D. Peterson, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; Henry P. Huntington, Huntington Consulting; and Rosamond L. Naylor, Stanford University.
Financial support was provided by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and the Pacific Northwest Research Station.
Chapin is Alaska's first member of the National Academy of Sciences. This paper, "Policy strategies to address sustainability of Alaskan boreal forests in response to a directionally changing climate," is part of the special series of inaugural articles by members of the National Academy of Sciences elected on April 20, 2004.
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