University of Missouri helps Feds with climate change research

Apr 15, 2014

M.U. School of Natural Resources research specialist Tom Bonnot works with data to develop models that predict how climate change will effect forests and wildlife.
M.U. School of Natural Resources research specialist Tom Bonnot works with data to develop models that predict how climate change will effect forests and wildlife.

With all the bickering taking place in Congress about what to do or what not to do about climate change, you might think federal agencies wouldn't be dealing with it either.

But let's say, for example, you decided to do an internet search for information about national forests.   You would find numerous federal government web sites, including the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that tell you all about their climate change initiatives, programs and ongoing research built into just about everything they do.

And MU is involved in some of that climate change research for the Feds.

Tom Bonnot is a research specialist for the School of Natural Resources, and the computer models he has designed from climate data over the past year are part of his Ph.D. research.  He said the models show how climate change will likely affect wildlife in specific forests across a 10 state region that includes the Missouri Ozarks.  "We can use these models to not only pull in climate change but pull in those conservation scenarios that we might consider and see which of those conservation scenarios across the region are going to most benefit the most wildlife species in the context of the climate change that might happen."

Bonnot's Ph.D. advisor is Dr. Frank Thompson.  He's an adjunct professor at M.U. and a wildlife scientist for the U.S. Forest Service.  "Most of us accept climates are changing, the big uncertainty is by how much,"  Thompson said.  "So we try to deal with that in these modeling approaches by modeling scenarios that predict the least amount of change scientists think might happen and also model scenarios that predict the most amount of change that might happen."

The Forest Service is also modeling how some tree species in Missouri might change in response to climate change.  A hotter drier climate might not be so good for some tree species like the Sugar Maple and the Northern Red Oak years down the road.  But as temperatures warm it might be very good over time for Southern Pine and Shortleaf Pine.  

Thompson said situations like this present managers in federal agencies with options.  "If we know the direction the environment is changing and what species it will favor, we can start to think about what management actions now will best conserve all the things we want to conserve in that changing landscape with some premonition now of climate driven changes."

So, for example, a federal agency that is considering making changes to habitat for a species of bird in the Missouri Ozarks will generally factor in climate change into its decision-making process because it will more likely meet its objectives.  Bonnot said, "We don't want to be doing and planning conservation that is not going to be effective because we haven't addressed climate change and what it might do to the landscapes."

Thompson agrees and said his agency and others have gotten serious about climate change.  He said, "Directives are coming down from Washington establishing things like regional climate centers and new inter-agency climate projects."  He said incorporating climate change into everything the U.S. Forest Service does now has been the biggest change he's seen in the past 20 years with the agency.  "Before we were focused on species level biology and habitat factors.  Now with all that knowledge and building on what we've done, we are really focused on how climate is effecting landscapes and how these big scale changes are going to effect wildlife."

These federal agencies are not making decisions based on climate change alone.  Bonnot plugs all kinds of data into his computer models.  Everything from habitat loss to land use by humans and a whole lot more.  While he is continuing to crunch the numbers Bonnot will soon begin running the climate models to see how the landscape will change in the future under different climate scenarios.