Lessons Learned from an Arctic Resilience Assessment

By Susan Evans, WWF Canada

As a Canadian working in the field of climate change adaptation, it should come as no surprise that my first foray into applying my knowledge on the ground was in the Arctic, where change is happening faster than anywhere else on the planet!

In 2009, I found myself in a remote part of Sweden discussing options for arctic conservation with an elite group of researchers from around the world.  After a few days, I was soon confronted with the radical new thinking we (conservationists, land-use managers, decisions makers) would need to embrace to be successful in conserving arctic ecosystems under conditions of rapid change.

It was clear that our current approach to conservation was falling short, as evidenced by the continued decline in ecosystem services and the increased number of species on IUCN’s red list.  This prompted a group of us working on WWF’s Global Arctic Programme to ask 1) how can we maintain functioning ecosystems that provide for people and nature in the face of climate change, and 2) how must we strengthen our conservation and ecosystem management approaches to ensure we’re successful in achieving our goals today and into a rapidly changing future?

This set in motion the development of an ambitious new project called RACER, Rapid Assessment of CircumArctic Ecosystem Resilience.  After 3 years of technical analyses and countless expert discussions on how to apply resilience thinking to conservation, a new tool for identifying and mapping places of conservation importance across the Arctic was produced.

Not only does this tool look ahead to anticipate the impacts of change, but it also flips the traditional conservation approach on its head.  Instead of focusing on vulnerability, the RACER approach focuses on identifying and mapping sources of ecological strength and durability.

Why strength and durability?  Well, let me explain this with an analogy.  Think of two people getting ready to run a race.  Individual A, has been training hard, eating right, and has made sure to hydrate before the race.  Individual B, has run a few times in the past month, but has been too busy to eat well and has forgotten to hydrate.  As the race begins the two competitors are pretty even stepped, but then the hills start, and Individual B can’t seem to recover on the downside before the next hill approaches.  Individual A is having no trouble pushing through the hills, all his strength training has helped his legs recover quickly after each hill.  Then the weather changes and the wind picks up, and it begins to rain and the temperature drops – this is enough to stop Individual B dead in his tracks, and he is no longer capable of pushing through these additional stresses, so doesn’t finish the race.  He didn’t invest in building his strength and endurance to give him that extra support when an unforeseen event, like the changing weather, occurred.  Individual A finishes the race, tired and slower than usual, but he will recover, and will continue to race in the future.

So, the premise behind the RACER approach is – ecosystems that benefit from local sources of strength and durability are likely better than others at enduring environmental shocks and surprises, and thus would adapt better under conditions of rapid change.  At the core of this approach is the concept of resilience.  Resilience, simply put, is the ability of a system to recover (or “bounce back”) from an impact.  Thus a resilience-based conservation approach seeks to strengthen the ability of social-ecological systems to remain functional, ensuring ecosystems and communities can return to a normal state of wellbeing following an extreme event or disturbance (e.g. rapid climate change).

Determining how to define sources of ecological resilience proved to be much harder than we had originally expected.  An expert advisory group was formed, and brought together at a workshop to build consensus around what the ‘engines’ responsible for keeping ecosystems functional were, and after much healthy analysis and debate, productivity and diversity rose to the top.  Thus those areas that conferred exceptional productivity and diversity were considered to be sources of ecological resilience.  The locations where these ‘engines’ manifested on the ground (e.g. upwelling, polyna, wetlands, mountains) were mapped, and considered exceptional due to the unique combination of geophysical and biological characteristics that drive them (e.g. sea-ice cover, nutrients, soil moisture).

RACER then set out to assess the likelihood of those places on the ground to persist under future climate conditions (our version of a vulnerability assessment).  Twenty arctic relevant climate variables (e.g. sea-ice cover, surface temperature, precipitation, soil moisture) were analysed, computing seasonal means for each ecoregion across the Arctic.  Outputs were used to estimate the likely impact that potential future climates would have on the persistence of the unique combination of ‘engines’ responsible for the exceptional productivity and diversity at those places.

Those places identified using the RACER approach to persist and continue as sources of resilience would be considered good bets for conservation, and essential to ensuring continued function of ecosystems and the services they provide for people and nature

With any project striving to understand and apply new concepts, you learn a lot along the way. Sharing those lessons learned is, in my mind, equally as helpful in advancing conservation practice as the documented report, and so I share some with you here.

How we work is more important to future conservation success than what we work on.

This realization is sparking a steady revolution in the field of conservation, that promotes a resilience-based approach and focuses on maintaining nature’s potential to provide species and services vs. ensuring the persistence of the products (e.g. a particular species) themselves.  Arguably the best example of this would be from the business sector, where companies that foster a culture of maintaining creativity (finding the next best thing/service etc.) vs. focusing on the actual number of widgets produced, are more successful at remaining current, relevant, and prosperous in the long run as consumer markets fluctuate.

As climate impacts force species and ecosystems towards (and even across) thresholds it is very likely that species, habitats, and ecosystems as we know them today, will not be in the same state or location in the future.  This is likely to result in conservation practitioners asking themselves some tough questions: what level of intervention are we willing to employ (e.g. assisted migration)? How do we evaluate conservation success (do we promote functionally-equivalent invasive species to maintain ecosystem function/service)? And how should we apply limited resources to reap the biggest wins (e.g. triage)?

We manage people not ecological systems.  

As we engaged with local level planners, community groups and experts in the field of resilience it was emphasized to us that we need to make a concerted effort to be inclusive of social considerations.  We manage people’s influence on ecosystems, not ecosystems themselves, so focusing on building adaptive capacity and resilience within a coupled social-ecological system, will not only make the connection between people and nature explicit, but will also foster a sense of stewardship and responsibility for the state of the system we are all a part of.

This will require a huge investment in building relationships that will need to begin at the project scoping stage and continue well after implementation.  Otherwise it is likely that recommended actions will not be adopted and the necessary resources to enable action will not be provided.

Identifying valued ecosystem components (VECs), and services is critical to building resilience

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet strategy that can be employed to build resilience and secure nature’s potential to provide into the future.  I wish there were!  So, understanding what we (the nation, province, territory, region, local community) want our future to look like, and which ecosystem components and services we wish to maintain into the future, is a central question that must be answered to adequately evaluate tradeoffs and prioritize strategies for building resilience.  Again this highlights the importance of looking through a social-ecological lens when identifying options for building resilience and adaptation.

We must plan for multiple climate and development scenarios and time horizons

Once the VECs and ecosystem services you wish to maintain in your future are clearly identified, it is important that you know how they will be impacted by future climate and development scenarios.  A visual representation of this is likely the best way to communicate “what’s at stake”, so as to engage people and prioritize actions on the ground.  In addition, understanding multiple scenario outputs can help to build strategies that remain robust over time or flag when future course correction is required to continue seeing a return on our conservation investments.

Ambition is good, but needs to be realistic

RACER was envisaged to be a “quick and dirty” assessment, but 2 years into the project we were being asked what had happened to our “rapid” timeline.  I like many scientists get really excited about cutting-edge, ambitious projects that I can sink my teeth into, but there are times when I am immersed so deep into exploring new concepts that I lose sight of the practical requirement of my role as a conservation scientist.  There is a difficult balance needed here between maintaining scientific credibility and producing products and advice quickly enough to affect change and influence decisions on land and sea-use planning.

At what point is “good”, good enough and “perfect” so paralyzing that it actually hinders conservation success?   It takes courage to stand on the cutting-edge, and I was proud when the RACER project team decided to unveil its report without having applied the methodology in every ecoregion of the circumarctic, as originally envisaged.  In this reality of the race to develop our natural landscape and the rapidity with which our climate is changing, conservation scientists and practitioners will have to become more comfortable with navigating this delicate balance between rigor and practicality so as not to miss windows of opportunity or harm our credibility as scientists.

Although RACER was built as a tool for the Arctic, I believe it and the lessons I’ve shared above can be a model for how to apply the concept of resilience to conservation, and increase nature’s ability to adapt in the face of climate change.