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Earth Notes: Mapping Resilient Landscapes

The Nature Conservancy

National parks and other protected areas often aim conservation efforts at particular species—as grand as the California condor or as tiny as the sentry milkvetch.

But in an era of climate change, there’s no guarantee plants and animals will stay in the areas set aside for them. Some of them have to move to survive, heading northward or up mountain slopes in search of cooler weather. That’s why The Nature Conservancy created a new set of maps to guide protection efforts. Where old maps focused on biodiversity, these new ones reveal “resilience.”  

A resilient landscape is one that can adapt to stress. Scientists mapped out not just places with diverse flora and fauna, but diverse topography and soils, too. They added corridors that connect pieces of habitat, with special attention to places where animals and plants have the ability to move north and up.

For the country as a whole, resilient landscapes usually appear in mountainous areas, like the Appalachians in the East and the Rockies in the West. On the Colorado Plateau, rivers show up bright blue on the maps as places to find water even as the climate warms. Vast grasslands and restored ponderosa forests add to the landscape’s resiliency. But cities, roads, and farmlands break the landscape into smaller pieces and can halt the movement of species.  

The maps offer a new way to look at conservation: connected corridors instead of islands, and habitat that will remain healthy far into the future, instead of just here and now.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.