Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center

Taking regional action on climate change
UMass Amherst professor Jon Woodruff and students in a grassy Nahant, Massachusetts marsh.

The word “adaptation” in the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center’s (NE CASC) name gets right at the crux of its work. While other institutions focus on climate projections, such as how fast our oceans are rising, or how quickly our atmosphere is warming, UMass Amherst-based NE CASC investigates how we can use this information to protect wildlife and  ecosystems from the looming impact of climate change. To date, NE CASC’s research has included such topics as how to conserve monarch butterflies in urban areas; predicting the impact of climate change on maple syrup production; investigating how shifting climate is affecting mammals in the Northeast; assisting tribal nations with climate change adaptation; and studying how to keep cold-water fish cool. The center has completed scores of such critical projects, with many more underway.

“We have more demand for work that’s valuable to our region than we can provide,” says director of NE CASC, Richard Palmer.

Actionable Science
It’s unusual to have such a focus on actionable science at the university level, says Palmer, who is also a UMass Amherst professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We are set up to work reciprocally with stakeholders to see what the impacts of climate change will be on our resources and to inform resource management,” he explains. “Our faculty, staff, and federal partners are working directly with people who make decisions—park managers, coastal fisheries staff, foresters, directors of land trusts. We can then see the impact of the science they bring to these problems. It’s very exciting.”

Richard Palmer

It was a validation of the campus’s expertise and research breadth when the U.S. Department of the Interior selected UMass Amherst as the NE CASC host in 2011. Since plants, animals, and waterways don’t respect boundaries, the consortium is geared for large-scale decision making across state lines, spanning a region from Maine to Virginia and west to Missouri.

In addition to UMass Amherst, the consortium members are the College of Menominee Nation; Columbia University; Cornell University; Michigan State University; Woods Hole Research Center; the universities of Missouri, Vermont, and Wisconsin-Madison; and researchers affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey. This team has published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, delivered hundreds of presentations, and developed over 25 interactive tools used by wildlife ecologists, state agencies, Native American tribes, town planning boards, and local conservation groups.

Jon Woodruff

In 2019, the Department of the Interior reviewed this strong track record and renewed support for the UMass Amherst-based center with a five-year, $4.5 million commitment; that commitment was increased by another $1 million in January 2020. Although politics have imperiled some climate change research funding, Palmer says, “We’ve had very strong congressional support and are hopeful that the increases in funding we’ve seen in the past will continue.”

Jon Woodruff, associate professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Geosciences and NE CASC co-principal investigator, affirms that Congress recognizes the critical importance of the center’s work. “Action has to start now in order to adapt to all the major climate-related changes that are coming to our region,” he says.

A Regional Approach

“Looking at climate change impacts regionally, rather than on a state or local basis, makes sense because of the commonalities among the Northeast’s ecosystems and wildlife,” says Bethany Bradley, NE CASC co-principal investigator and professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation. Bradley points out that far-flung entities didn’t always have the opportunity to work together. For example, there wasn’t a regional strategy to combat invasive species before NE CASC developed the Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (RISCC) Management Network. Last year, RISCC narrowed a list of more than 100 plants likely to spread in the Northeast due to the changing climate down to a ten-most-wanted list of plants that pose the greatest threat to native species, encouraging natural resource managers and others to strategically target nuisance neonatives, such as bur chervil and giant reed.

Bethany Bradley

RISCC also published a gardeners’ guide to desirable native plants, including blazing star, blue flag iris, and butterfly weed. Eighty percent of typical nursery stock is not native, explains Bradley, who foresees that as educated gardeners request natives, they will become more widely available.

Woodruff, who studies coastal systems and rivers and the interplay of natural and human-induced changes on these systems, adds that because culture, ecology, and geology vary greatly among regions, it makes sense to study the coasts regionally rather than nationally. Presently, his team is working on a NE CASC project focused on tidal marshes along the Hudson River. His research addresses such questions as: How much do we need to invest to keep these systems resilient? How can we apply what we learned from the costly restoration of the marshes of New York’s Jamaica Bay following flooding from Hurricane Sandy to this system? Through projects like this, Woodruff says, “We are providing useable, actionable science for stakeholders and practitioners.”

Bradley adds that NE CASC can respond to its stakeholders needs quickly—and often their needs are unpredictable. For example, she says, “In 2016, we were surprised by a major gypsy moth outbreak in the Northeast. We hired a postdoctoral student who was an expert in remote sensing, who produced maps of where the outbreak had occurred and its severity. Then researchers went out on the ground to see the effects of the outbreak: Were the trees surviving? What were the longer-term consequences? With changing precipitation patterns, gypsy moths will be an ongoing threat in our region, so it’s important to have this data.”

What’s Next
NE CASC supports the next generation of scientists who bring a pulse of new energy to the important work of adapting to climate change; the center trains up to 25 graduate students per year at UMass and other institutions. They have gone on to careers in departments of natural resources, federal fish and wildlife agencies, nongovernmental agencies, and in academia. “They have interdisciplinary training in the climate sciences and bring the culture of collaboration and stakeholder engagement they’ve experienced here with them to their careers,” says Addie Rose Holland ’10MS, deputy university director of NE CASC.

As Palmer prepares to retire as NE CASC’s director, he can reflect on the consortium’s success and take heart that these newly trained scientists, along with the consortium’s researchers and its principal investigators, are committed to NE CASC’s mission. Woodruff says, “When it comes to climate change, we can’t kick the can down the alley. Things need to be done right now, planning needs to take place, real decisions that are informed by science have to be made.

As for Bradley, she strives to stay undaunted by thoughts of the losses that the Earth and its people will sustain due to climate change. She says, “I look at it as a huge science experiment. We have enormous challenges ahead—we want to maintain diversity, keep our rare species, help them to adapt. Our goal is to focus on solutions.”

Tools and more information can be found at necsc.umass.edu.

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The Art of Resilience
Using art to combat climate change and disasters

Climate change is informing the work of faculty from across campus. Pictured here is “High Tide” by Carolina Aragón, assistant professor of landscape architecture, in the World Bank atrium. It is an abstraction of a marsh landscape, using translucent disks placed at varying levels, marking levels of past and predicted floods, bringing attention to the shifting boundary between land and water. It’s part of “The Art of Resilience” exhibition featuring global artists using their art to advance resilience to disasters and climate change. “High Tide” was first installed in 2016 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston. This 2019 version shows projected sea-level rise for Washington, D.C., for 2050 and 2060.