In the coming decades, climate change will continue to alter landscapes and their associated ecosystems globally. The American Southwest is predicted to experience some of the more profound impacts of climate change earlier than other parts of the United States due to its naturally hot, dry climate and its well-documented history of episodic drought. The Escalante River Watershed (ERW) is an ideal location for studying the ongoing and future impacts of climate change on natural landscapes. Its varied geology, soil types, and pronounced elevational gradient interact to produce an array of distinct ecosystems with different tolerances to temperature, water availability, and disturbance regimes.
The Climate Change Committee (newest of the ERWP working groups) was established to identify the challenges of climate driven change within the Escalante River Watershed and their specific causes. It attempts to apply the methods of climate change science to issues specific to this portion of the Colorado Plateau. The goal is to understand the effects of climate change on the ecological systems of the area and (where possible) explore adaptive mitigation strategies to help counter their impact and to assist public land managers in these efforts. The promotion of effective strategies that are truly interagency in scope – i.e., spanning the artificial land management boundaries within the ERW, is one of the Committee’s objectives.
The Committee interacts with other ERWP committees to document climate change related shifts in ecosystem structure and function and associated threats to the greater Escalante River Watershed (including the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument). It seeks to identify the most at-risk elements in various ecological communities and consider what mitigation strategies are feasible. In collaboration with BLM and NFS staff, the Committee hopes to develop long-term monitoring protocols and associated infra-structure (e.g., weather stations, study plots) in order to better track climate change and its associated physical, biological and ecological impacts. In this context, the Committee has assumed primary responsibility for developing the Upper Sand Creek Research Natural Area (USC-RNA on the Dixie NF) as a climate change study site suitable for long-term environmental monitoring and future use by qualified researchers. The USC-RNA was set aside in the 1990s as a reference area for investigating an undisturbed (relict) ponderosa pine forest in order to better inform the management of this important forest type. It is currently the only site officially approved as a protected area for research studies, including those related to climate change, within the ERW. Current Committee activities at USC-RNA are aimed at establishing baseline data on ecological conditions, including its native biodiversity, together with information on its historical ecology (primarily from tree-ring data), especially past responses to episodes of prolonged drought and (pre-settlement) fire.
Examples of the diversity of habitats at the USC-RNA. They range from park-like old growth ponderosa pine forest with varied understory communities (photo 1 and 2), to slick rock on the southern extreme of the area (photo 3). (Photos taken by M. Coles-Ritchie during the June 2021 bioblitz).