Home » Manage Grasslands and Prairie Habitats for Climate Change
Grasslands cover approximately 400 million acres of the contiguous United States. From the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern edge of the Rockies, smaller meadows, savannas and grasslands can be found in nearly every state. Despite their extensive distribution, grasslands and the neighboring deserts that make up more arid regions are sensitive ecosystems that can be vulnerable to extreme changes in temperature and shifts in precipitation. The grasslands of the Great Plains are also threatened by conversion to agriculture or development, compounding threats to these important ecosystems and the species that depend on them.
Drought, floods and severe storms will impact grasslands in the Great Plains region and elsewhere. The impacts of climate change will vary based on the location, current climate and species composition of an individual grassland, but may include the encroachment of new species, and a greater risk of wildfire brought on by hotter, drier summers.
Increasing temperatures, reduced rainfall, and drought are already being observed in some regions, and the arid Southwest in particular is projected to become even drier in this century. Deserts in the United States are projected to expand to the north, east, and upward in elevation in response to projected warming and associated changes in climate. Studies show that by the turn of the century, climate in the Western United States may be incompatible with current vegetation types, resulting in shifting patterns of terrestrial ecosystems. Observed and predicted climate change impacts to grasslands include:
Warmer winters, drier summers and the encroachment of new species all present serious challenges to the plants and animals that rely on grasslands and prairies.
Land trusts that manage grasslands, prairies, and deserts for climate change may want to:
Much of the western United States is composed of grasslands, plains, prairies, and deserts. Despite water scarcity, historically these lands - especially the grasslands of the Great Plains - have faced development pressures due to ecological conditions that are also favorable to agriculture. Extensive grazing has also impacted many of these systems, which tend to grow - and thus recover - slowly, increasing their vulnerability to changing conditions.
Adaptation to Climate Change in Management of Prairie Grasslands, a report from the Prairies Regional Adaptation Collaborative, discusses vulnerabilities and adaptation concepts for these ecosystems. PRAC recommends land managers focus on (1) creating resistance to change (short-term adaptation); (2) promoting resilience to change (medium-term adaptation); and (3) enable grassland ecosystems to respond to change (long-term adaptation) to protect the biodiversity, habitats, and ecosystem services these landscapes provide, and details these strategies in the context of North American Grasslands.
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