Smart Land Stewardship In An Ever-Changing Weatherscape

The world, it seems, is becoming a more volatile place — meteorologically speaking. It’s getting hotter, ice caps are melting, oceans are rising, wildfires are raging, drought, hurricanes, flooding rivers, tornadoes and severe weather is intensifying all across the globe.

Land represents an opportunity to address the threat of climate change.

Though the changing weatherscape is a global phenomenon, it is at the community level that the impacts are felt at any given moment. “Local engagement is where the climate battle will be won or lost,” says Brendan Shane, the director of climate for The Trust for Public Land. Other land conservation groups have risen to the challenge and offer a battery of simple solutions that don’t require hard science or technology, but do require a new way of looking at the land we inhabit.

Two white swans joined by a brown swan walking on the shallow waters of a lake

Courtesy of USDA

“Land represents an opportunity to address the threat of climate change. There are a lot of different ways that land can be part of the solution — carbon mitigation is one big way, which will help us adapt and prepare for more extreme weather events. Be it increased coastal storm surges or hurricanes, or inland with increased precipitation or drought and fires — the way we manage and use natural systems can help buffer those impacts and threats,” says Kelly Watkinson, land and climate program manager for the Land Trust Alliance, a national conservation organization providing advocacy and training for more than 1,700 land trusts across the United States.

Local engagement is where the climate battle will be won or lost.

A view of a lake with some plants in the foreground

Courtesy of USFWS

We caught up with her at the airport and asked how local organizations and government can plan for and adapt to help mitigate the effects of extreme weather events. “The concepts of ‘green infrastructure’ or ‘nature-based solutions’ are basically the idea of using nature as an infrastructure, as opposed to concrete or something built or engineered, to help plan and protect against these types of impacts. That’s a way that counties or cities or local governments can think about planning for impacts. Land trusts are often partnering — or just doing this on their own — in a community where they’re thinking about green infrastructure. A lot of the work they’re doing is protecting the land that can serve in this capacity or restoring it. But in order for it to be really effective, local government, land trusts and other organizations need to be planning together so they’re all rowing together in the same direction and understanding where the most important natural assets are to meet these goals moving forward.”

A gardener wearing gloves and a hat trimming a flower bush

Courtesy of USFWS

As the temperature of the atmosphere warms, its composition changes. Analysis shows that shares of both water vapor and carbon dioxide have been rising.

The good news is that greenscapes mitigate rising carbon dioxide levels by taking it in and, when the skies let loose the increased moisture, greenscapes absorb the moisture when it hits the ground thereby reducing the flood impacts.

Thus, cities around the country are finding themselves in the position of needing more greenspace to offset increasing water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Those working to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius are looking at trees as more than something to behold. “We need to focus on shrinking our carbon footprint in every possible way,” Shane said. “Recent analysis demonstrates that forests in the United States can absorb 14 percent of our carbon emissions. Effective management of parks and open space can literally pull excess carbon out of the air. So when we protect working forests and expand tree canopy and urban green space, we don’t just protect wildlife, water quality, and treasured public spaces — we also help to meet these ambitious global targets.”

Green infrastructure helps protect against extreme-weather impacts.

A downtown area park surrounded by highrises

Photo by J.J. Bers

There are other benefits from trees, as Shane describes. “Green space and a healthy urban tree canopy cool the air on hot days, protecting people from the worst climate change killer: heat. The cooler the air, the less people need to run their air conditioners or drive instead of choosing active transportation, so you see energy savings, too.”

Dying from heat would be a horrible way to go, but it’s happening more often than it ever has before. “Heat waves in the United States have almost tripled compared to the long-term average, and now kill more people in cities than all other weather-related events combined,” reports Taj Schottland, Climate-Smart Cities Program Manager, Green Infrastructure for The Trust for Public Lands. “Extreme heat is a public health hazard that’s driven by climate change, but it’s not the only health hazard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified eight ways climate change is negatively impacting human health, resulting in increased respiratory illnesses, mental health impacts, cardiovascular failure and more.”

A downtown area bridge featuring trees and green vegetation

Courtesy of USDA

“A recent study in Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., showed that on one of the hottest days last summer, parks were a cooling oasis — as much as 17 degrees cooler than parts of the city lacking trees and green space. In addition, the cooling benefit of parks can extend as far as a half-mile from park boundaries, helping cool the neighborhood and reduce heat stress for residents.” He goes on to state that urban tree canopies in parks and along city streets is estimated to remove 711,000 metric tons of air pollution annually and sequester more than 90 million tons of carbon (CO2 equivalent), which equates to removing 19 million cars from the road for one year. Urban trees also filter particulate matter from automobiles and other vehicles, further cleaning the air.

Green space and a healthy urban tree canopy cool the air on hot days.

It’s not just on the urban landscape that vegetation has its benefits for removing carbon from the atmosphere. “Another important aspect is the amount of carbon that’s stored in the soil, through plants and roots and decay. Soils have a huge impact on carbon sequestration. People don’t often think about it but soil has a tremendous benefit — prairies are basically like upside down forests that hold a lot of carbon and pull a lot of carbon down into the soil,” Watkinson explained.

Purple flowers in a green field with power lines in the background

Courtesy of USFWS

Soil also has a huge impact on absorbing and holding water and reducing the impact of flooding, based on its composition. Soil with 5 percent organic matter can absorb six times more water than soil with only 1 percent organic matter.

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) in California helped launch the Marin Carbon Project (MCP). Its first demonstration project was Stemple Creek Ranch, whose soils already had high carbon levels from decades of sound stewardship. Owner Loren Poncia was also concerned with runoff and drought, saying “I want my ranch to be a sponge when it rains, and (soil) carbon is essentially a sponge.”

MALT and MCP went on to develop a “Carbon Farm Planning” process that identified 35 agricultural management practices that benefit the climate. The plan became so popular that MALT Director for Conservation Jeff Stump says there are “twice as many applicants each year as we can complete plans for.” The model is now replicated by Resource Conservation Districts in 20 California counties and several states.

A field of prairie grasses

Courtesy of USFWS

At the Katy Prairie Conservancy (KPC) in Houston, Texas, a Harris County Flood Control District study found that prairie grasses absorb more than 8 inches of rainfall per hour compared to just half an inch for turf grass. Mary Anne Piacentini, KPC’s president and CEO, also describes prairie grasses as “a rainforest turned upside down, acting as a huge sponge with 12 to 18 feet of roots that can help absorb floodwaters and can also withstand drought.”

Prairie grasses are a rainforest turned upside down, acting as a huge sponge that can absorb floodwaters and withstand drought.

Aside from forests and grasslands, marshland is becoming more important as a buffer for hurricanes along the Atlantic coastline and Gulf Coast. In 169 years of record keeping, there have been only 35 Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic. Five of those catastrophic storms have happened in the last four years, forecasting an increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events and prompting meteorologists to contemplate the need for a Category 6 to be created. They’re also moving more slowly as they grow. A recent study in the journal Nature found the track speed of hurricanes in the North Atlantic — due to warmer ocean temperatures — has slowed roughly 20 percent, increasing flooding and severity as Dorian recently demonstrated over the Bahamas when it basically parked over the islands for 24 hours without moving.

Flooded mangroves with tall trees

Photo courtesy of USFWS

“If you think about a lot of the hurricanes we’ve had in the last few years, most of the damage has been from the rain and flooding. The storms gather more moisture over a warmer ocean, because as the temperature gets warmer the air can hold more water,” Watkinson told us. “I’m on my way to Alabama right now to talk about the Gulf Coast. It’s very well documented that marshes and mangrove help buffer communities against the higher storm surge, they help absorb and hold the water, slow down the wind and waves and everything, and they’re a critical infrastructure.”

“But with sea-level rises these marshes will be inundated and basically be turned into open water. So, one of the things that we’re doing a lot of work around right now is thinking about marsh migration — understanding the landscape and the land and, as sea levels rise, thinking about where these marshes can move to. Based on the topography and what’s already built and other factors, you can really identify the best places to conserve now so that the marsh has a place to move to in the future to provide that buffer.”

Marshland is becoming more important as a buffer for hurricanes.
People holding samples of marsh vegetation wrapped up to be migrated to other areas

Photo courtesy of USFWS

Yes, the world does appear to be becoming a more volatile place, meteorologically speaking. The evidence is hard to deny. Conserving land and nature-based methods of mitigation and adaptation can help us weather the coming storms.

Our challenge is likened to that of turning a cruise ship around. First you need to slow it down, and then you can begin to turn it. As the Native American proverb reminds us, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

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