RICHMOND, Va. — Vast national forest areas and scattered pockets of undeveloped lands in in West Virginia and Virginia are among the regions that would be resilient to drought, rising temperatures and other threats associated with climate change, according to a study released Monday by The Nature Conservancy.
The study identifies "strongholds" that could provide habitat to a variety of plants and animals under the extreme climate change predicted by many scientists. They also would be sources of clean drinking water and other resources for human populations.
"These strongholds will be critical to all life as the threats of climate change continue to grow," said Michael Lipford, Virginia executive director of The Nature Conservancy. "They could serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plant and animal species that otherwise may be unable to find suitable habitat due to climate change."
Lipford said various species of birds are already responding to climate change, such as black vultures now appearing in central Appalachian mountains and red-bellied woodpeckers sighted in northern areas of Appalachia.
"Yes, we are seeing movement of species and there are many others that we are still studying to see how that movement is taking place," he said in an interview.
Generally, areas with little development, a complex ecosystem and permeability — the ability of species to move across their landscape — are less subject to climate change and primary future destinations for species vulnerable to shifts in climate.
West Virginia and Virginia, for instance, have millions of acres of protected forestland in the Jefferson and Monongahela national forests, which the study identifies as strongholds against climate change.
In Virginia, the upper James River watershed, Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia and the Great Dismal Swamp are resilient to climate change. The study also identified Rappahannock forestland and the Blackwater area of Dendron Swamp. Vast portions of western West Virginia are also identified as resilient, as well as that state's border with Virginia.
Highly developed areas in eastern Virginia are less resilient, as are areas of southern and northern West Virginia, primarily from coal mining and natural gas development, Lipford said.
The study does not examine climate change's impact on sea levels along the Virginia coast, the subject of a future analysis.
"But Virginia has some of the highest rate of sea level change of any place in the country, so those areas give me concern too," Lipford said.
The Virginia and West Virginia findings are part of a study that analyzed 156 million acres stretching from Virginia to Maine. Areas expected to resist the impact of climate change, The Nature Conservancy said, are those with complex features: forests, wetlands and mountain ranges. Highland forests in West Virginia, for instance, and oak-pine forests in Virginia would be strongholds, the study found.
In general, he said, the central Appalachian region running from Pennsylvania to eastern Kentucky and northeast Tennessee could hedge the impacts of climate change.
Lipford said the study is not intended to be alarmist, but rather serve as blueprint for investments in future conservation efforts.
"It's hopeful that there is something that we can do to ensure that species are able to move," he said. "I just think it's smart that when investments are made in conservation, why not make sure that that investment is made in the most resilient places to withstand changing climate."
Tom Speaks, supervisor of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia and West Virginia, said forest planners should be mindful of changing climate and ever-expanding populations.
"A better understanding of these key resilient landscapes can help us prioritize and implement our management and restoration practices," Speaks said in a statement.
The study was funded by The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and The Nature Conservancy.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Online: The Nature Conservancy study