Using integrated ecosystem modeling to improve our understanding of climate change impacts in the Alaska region

By any measure, climate change promises to bring major impacts to parks and preserves in the Alaska region. We know with great certainty that temperatures will continue to increase in coming decades, and warming will undoubtedly be accompanied by some combination of altered precipitation regimes, changes in seasonal weather patterns, and shifting extremes (IPCC 2007). However, one of the greatest challenges for park managers and planners is in connecting these climate drivers to the actual resources they must manage and protect. At the end of the day, climate projections suggesting ranges of temperature increase or upper and lower bounds on variables like seasonal precipitation have limited practical value for shaping policy and guiding investment. In-and-of themselves climate projections offer little actionable information. Climate projections only take on meaning in the context of park adaptation management and planning when they can be linked to impacts on the resources, services, and amenities these lands provide. Fortunately, we have a growing set of tools to help us address the challenge of linking changes in climate to the physical, ecological, and cultural systems that make up our parks and preserves. We can, for example, rely more and more on observed links between park resources, climate variability, and climate change gleaned from field observations. Efforts such as the US National Park Service’s (NPS) Inventory and Monitoring program are particularly valuable in this sense.

Likewise the NPS’ use of Scenario Planning (Weeks et al. 2011) is helping park managers and stakeholders envision the potential range of future climate change impacts, while also providing a platform for exploring adaptation and mitigation options. Here we describe another approach centered on the use of modeling to connect climate-change drivers to tangible on-the-ground impacts in parks. At the most basic level, the Integrated Ecosystem Model (IEM) for Alaska and Northwestern Canada ingests climate scenarios (historical or projected future) and, in turn, uses tightly interconnected simulations of key physical and ecological processes to produce estimates of future landscape response. The IEM is focused on producing spatially-explicit (e.g., map-based) outputs that can serve as stand-alone decision support tools. This effort is also designed to produce information that can be integrated into many of the tools used by resource managers and planners. Such process-based simulations are of vital importance because they offer us the ability to explore novel climate-ecosystem-resource interactions and potential events that may be outside the bounds of available observations.


Gray, S.T., A. Bennett, W.R. Bolton, A.L. Breen, T. Carman, E. Euskirchen, H. Genet, E. Jafarov, J. Jenkins, T. Kurkowski, M. Lindgren, P. Martin, S. McAfee, A.D. McGuire, S. Marchenko, R. Muskett, S. Panda, J. Reynolds, A. Robertson, V. Romanovsky, T.S.. 2014. Using integrated ecosystem modeling to improve our understanding of climate change impacts in the Alaska region. Alaska Park Science.