How Climate Services Can Support Ecosystem Restoration

by Ezekiel Maben |April 26, 2023
green plants planted in rows on sandy soil

A wetland restoration project in Australia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

Ecosystem degradation is a worsening problem worldwide. The UN estimates that 75 percent of the earth’s surface has been adversely affected by human activity. As ecosystems degrade, biodiversity, which undergirds the web of life, declines as well. Wildlife populations have declined by almost 70% since 1970, and more than a million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction.

Ecosystem restoration is one way to combat habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, but climate change is making restoration more difficult by altering which ecosystems are best suited to a particular area. Fortunately, the tools used in climate services —  wherein climate information is already being used to support climate-smart decision making  — may be able to help.

The challenges of ecosystem restoration

While understandings of restoration vary from place to place, one generally accepted definition adopted by the Society for Ecological Restoration is “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.” Ecosystem restoration can take many forms, from allowing the natural regeneration of native prairies or forests, to assisting the recovery of fragile and complex ecosystems like coastal mangrove forests.

Regardless of its definition or form, restoration is not a simple process. Many projects have been beset by issues, ranging from monocultural reforestation efforts to conflicts over human usage of restored areas. But perhaps the largest impediment to large-scale ecosystem restoration is climate change. The ongoing heating of the planet is changing regions in rapid and unpredictable ways, and the ecosystems that may exist in one place in the future may not be the ones that were there before.

One 2021 study estimated that more than 50% of the planet will experience climatic conditions associated with different regions by 2050. This drastic change represents a challenge for traditional conservation, as protected areas may no longer serve as the refuges for species that once lived there. But this challenge is doubly true for ecosystem restoration. As the climate changes the ecosystem that a project may be attempting to restore may no longer be able to exist in the target area.

wildflowers in a field

Restored prairie in Oregon. Photo: Bureau of Land Management 

With increasing awareness of the biodiversity crisis, ecosystem restoration has grown in popularity as a solution. Around the world, countries have pledged to restore over 1 billion hectares of nature worldwide by 2030 — an area the size of the United States. The United Nations has acknowledged the urgency of our moment by declaring the 2020s the “Decade on Restoration,” and even organizations like the World Economic Forum have begun to emphasize the importance of restoration.

As more money is devoted to ecological restoration, making sure that climate-related effects are taken into account can help avoid costly mistakes. Climate services — the use of historical climatic information and forecasting data to aid decision making — offer a suite of tools that may help. Modeling of future ecological parameters has already been widely implemented in related fields, such as fisheries management, and there are many existing tools used for agricultural prediction that could be applied to terrestrial ecosystem management.

A new way to use climate services

There has been debate within the ecosystem restoration field about the best ways to respond to climate change, but there is a growing awareness that gathering more data about current and future systems will be vital in ensuring ecosystem restoration success and limiting negative side effects, like water consumption.

The Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute of Climate and Society (IRI) was one of the pioneers in utilizing climate forecasting to support agriculture. Walter E. Baethgen, who leads this program, is confident that similar technologies could be useful in planning for ecosystem restoration, particularly in evaluating hazards. While IRI has not been directly contracted for major restoration projects, their climate services have been used for many ecosystem-related projects, from observing the effects of restored vegetation on weather patterns and food security in West Africa to the effect of climate change on ecosystem services in the Andes. These techniques could be very helpful in providing background information for restoration practice.

“If you have a depleted ecosystem that you are trying to restore, often plans do not include good information about risks,” said Baethgen. “Often the consideration of potential forest fires or other climate-related natural disasters [such as drought] are not considered. Climate services could be useful for characterizing risks. They could help predict the potential of losing a restored area due to drought or forest fire, and help determine insurance coverage pricing.

He sketched out how IRI might approach providing climate services for a restoration initiative:

“The first thing is to really understand the system that you are trying to restore, and historical climate data can be very helpful in understanding the potential variabilities in the system, how often were there fires or droughts, what is the vulnerability to flood, are regular shifts in rainfall patterns common? The second thing is to understand what may happen in the future, factoring in the potential for increased climate conditions. IRI might provide historical climate data, and models for forecasting future climate depending on the system.”

global precipitation forecast for may-june-july 2023

An example of a seasonal climate forecast from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Forecasts like these can aid in disaster planning, agriculture, and more.

In particular, Baethgen felt that climate services could be very helpful in developing insurance projects for ecosystem restoration, and predicting potential factors for restoration success or failure.

Many restoration practitioners are similarly confident that climate forecasting and modeling could be helpful — with caveats.

Water resources engineer Kevin Dahms and ecological engineer Chris Strehb work at Biohabitats, a company focusing on conservation planning and ecological restoration. They felt that climate forecasting had a lot of potential to be helpful in their work, but it could also complicate their efforts.

“The challenge is that our projects must function in the near term, whereas some of the effects of climate change exist further in the future,” said Dahms. “For example, for a tidal marsh restoration, sea level is considered into the future, but the design needs to support a marsh community in the near term.”

For Dahms and Strehb, the lack of long-term management and funding arrangements for restored areas means that it can be difficult to manage the effects of climate change over the long term, and that even the information provided by current widely accessible climate models may not be precise enough to be acted upon on the small scale. Still, models could be quite helpful under a future, integrated approach.

Dahms suggested that climate services could be particularly helpful in planning projects that are adaptive over time. “This is a question of resilience and adaptation,” he said. “Climate forecasting plus simulation modeling would help move a system in preparation of a future condition over time. “

Gijs Bosman, a practitioner with Dutch hydraulic restoration company The Weathermakers, is beginning to expand the use of climate modeling scenarios in his planning work. He also pointed out that current models were also not advanced enough to extrapolate how ecosystem restoration might affect the local climate. This is an important point: A properly restored ecosystem can affect everything from an area’s vegetation to its water cycle. For climate modeling to help with long-term restoration, specialized tools that can model microclimates will need to be developed.

Dylan Finley, an ecosystem restoration specialist with experience in the Hudson Valley and Hawaii, believes that forecasting technology will be essential for preparing ecosystems for climate change and future disruption. For his restoration projects in the Hudson Valley, Finley has used the Climate Change Resource Center’s Adaptation Workbook, which incorporates restoration objectives and climate change scenarios to provide recommendations. Finley felt that it really helped him develop a better understanding about how a restored ecosystem might work, giving tips on everything from the survival of spring ephemerals to potential invasive species threats.

Finley emphasized that planning ecosystem restoration around climate change isn’t about building a perfect forecasted ecosystem, but putting in genetic diversity and seed banks that allow ecosystems to adapt over time to the problems they will face with climate change. Because all forecasting tools carry uncertainties and shortcomings, adaptability and diligence are key, said Finley.

“You need to be careful about some of these tools,” he said. “For example, ash trees were projected to do well in the future climate of the Hudson Valley, but as any New York forester could tell you, the recent invasion of emerald ash borers has created a major problem for any ash tree. Beyond that, models are just that — they can’t exactly predict what will do well, which is why [it’s important to do] experimental patches of ecosystem restoration with climate change in mind, to establish best practices for this information.”

dry barren mountain slope with a swath of trees

A project restoring dryland forest on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Photo: Arthur Medeiros

Climate services can never be 100 percent accurate, and they should not be thought of as a perfect estimation of future climatic conditions. Rather, as Baethgen noted, they can help inform the choices restoration practitioners make, and enable them to build resiliency into their ecosystems, choosing species mixes that could shift in response to a range of forecasted conditions.

Tools like the Adaptation Workbook and USGS Tree Atlas can be useful, but they represent only a few of the climate services tools that could be leveraged for ecosystem restoration. Everything from worldwide temperature databases to boutique forecasting for a particular area could be useful when planning and executing ecosystem restoration. Projects like the Climate Change Response Framework, which helps identify vulnerabilities to climate change and strategies for adaptation for land managers throughout the U.S, represent how it is already possible to utilize climate services for effective ecosystem resiliency planning.

Funding and timescale challenges

The data is out there, but making it accessible and appropriate for all practitioners is an ongoing challenge. Beyond that, the pressures that ecosystem restoration practitioners face to design and execute their projects on a reasonable timescale and within budget constraints can limit the applicability of forecasting.

The issues that restoration practitioners face in attempting to integrate climate services into their practices are a symptom of the wider challenges of ecosystem restoration. Funding is perhaps the largest impediment. Worldwide, despite ambitious targets, funding for ecosystem restoration is still nowhere near the scale that it needs to be, with the UN estimating annual restoration funding must increase by $165 billion to tackle the ecological crisis. In the United States in particular, Byzantine funding structures and reliance on offsets and mandates can limit the range and ambition of projects to small areas and short timescales.

To really ensure ecosystem resiliency, wider geographic scales, longer funding cycles and decadal implementation timescales will be required, so that practitioners can make needed modifications and develop their techniques based on observed changes, successes and failures. Climate services can provide the data needed to make resilient restoration plans. Being able to monitor the accuracy of predictions over the long term will help improve restoration success, limit negative side effects, and increase the potency of climate forecasting systems.

If we want to truly restore degraded ecosystems at scale, then knowledge of what they might look like in the future is a must. Climate services can be a major part of bridging the long and short terms of ecosystem restoration, and ensuring that the ecosystems we help bolster now can survive far into the future. Properly funded restoration projects implemented over long time periods, planned with the help of climate services, could be truly transformative in the fight against ecosystem degradation and climate change.

Ezekiel Maben is a student in Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.

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