Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Workshop

It has been a few weeks now since I took the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment training course (listed as ALC3184 through the National Conservation Training Center). I have had some time to reflect, think about the experience, and move forward. I figure now is a good time to write up a post about it.


The view of La Crosse looking north from Grandad Bluff. I did some hiking in the bluffs after the workshop and stopped by this view point.

The workshop was three days and ran from 8-5 every day; it was taught in La Crosse, WI, at the USGS office there. The range of attendees came from the federal government (large FWS contingent), state governments (the MN-DNR was well represented), a few from NGOs (like the Conservation Fund), a consultant, and two grad students (including me). It was great to have people from these different agencies and groups all thinking about the same general topics and concerns of managing natural resources in a changing climate. When we are working on our own systems, we tend to limit our focus, and these broader-focused interactions were a lot of fun.

Class each day consisted of lectures, followed by breakout sessions where we would work on capstone projects in small groups (~6 people and one instructor). Attendees each submitted a proposal for a capstone activity prior to the course. Of these, four were chosen to use in these breakout sessions, though a few were combined because of similarities between the projects. Fortunately, my proposal about Cirsium pitcheri was selected! Other selected projects were more focused on the community/ecosystem level, rather than on a single species; these included prairie pothole conservation in western Minnesota, boreal forest in the Apostle Islands, and stream conservation with an emphasis on fishing in northeast Minnesota.

Topics covered in the class ranged through various aspects of the three main components of vulnerability: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Because I cannot summarize three days of material in one post, I will just give an overview of each component. Exposure focuses on the amount of climate change an organism or habitat is likely to undergo. Because topography, wind patterns, and other physical phenomena mean that the Earth’s surface is warming to different extents that are location dependent, it is important to get an idea of how this will impact the system of interest. Sensitivity focuses on the species/community to see if it is inherently sensitive to changes in temperature, precipitation, or other climatic factors. For instance, Species A shares habitat with Species B, but A has a much higher population growth rate and exhibits a large range of genetic and phenologic variability, whereas B reproduces slowly and is not very tolerant of change. Species B is more sensitive than Species A. Adaptive capacity looks at the ability of the system to adapt to change and has a natural and a human component. From the natural side, going back to Species A and B, Species A also has high rates of dispersal, which give it capacity to adapt through range shifting to better habitat. From the human side, if people are willing to help a species or habitat through its adaptive process, be it through assisted migration, removal of invasive species, etc, the species/habitat has some level of adaptive capacity.


Each team had to come up with a summary poster of their results. As we didn’t have access to a poster printer, we used a makeshift solution of normal letter paper arranged with the various sections of a typical poster.

Each of these three overarching themes has sub-themes, and there was plenty more information. If you are wondering what we decided about Pitcher’s thistle, it amounts to the species having very little natural adaptive capacity, some amount of human adaptive capacity, and varying levels of exposure and sensitivity, depending on what data are considered. The overall result was that the plant is sensitive to climate change and will likely require some form of human intervention, especially in the southern portions of its range.

Overall, in thinking about this experience and the instructors and attendees, it is refreshing to see the range of agencies and habitats that people are working with as we all face the changing climate. It is certainly important to take these changes into account when planning conservation and management action, especially over the long term. It was also nice to be involved in collaboration between groups that may not have otherwise bumped into each other. Some of the attendees were working on similar projects, but, because they work for different agencies in different states had not been aware of each other; they are planning to collaborate in the future. Indeed, I hope to stay in contact with a few people from the workshop.

In terms of future directions to go from this training, I have talked with a few people about the results and we are hoping to incorporate climate into the major management and recovery plans for Pitcher’s thistle. With the species currently undergoing a five-year review at the federal level, now is an opportune time to do this. Our next Team Cirsium pitcheri conference call will be in December or January, and I will certainly bring it up then.

Altogether, the training was very interesting and useful, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in climate change and its relationship to management to look into taking it if given the chance.