RFG 2018 Conference


Insular ecosystems of the southeastern United States - A regional synthesis to support biodiversity conservation in a changing climate

In the southeastern United States, insular ecosystems—such as rock outcrops, depression wetlands, high-elevation balds, flood-scoured riparian corridors, and insular prairies and barrens—occupy a small fraction of land area but constitute an important source of regional and global biodiversity, including concentrations of rare and endemic plant taxa. Maintenance of this biodiversity depends upon regimes of abiotic stress and disturbance, incorporating factors such as soil surface temperature, widely fluctuating hydrologic conditions, fires, flood scouring, and episodic droughts that may be subject to alteration by climate change. Over several decades, numerous localized, site-level investigations have yielded important information about the floristics, physical environments, and ecological dynamics of these insular ecosystems; however, the literature from these investigations has generally remained fragmented. This report consists of literature syntheses for eight categories of insular ecosystems of the southeastern United States, concerning (1) physical geography, (2) ecological determinants of community structures including vegetation dynamics and regimes of abiotic stress and disturbance, (3) contributions to regional and global biodiversity, (4) historical and current anthropogenic threats and conservation approaches, and (5) key knowledge gaps relevant to conservation, particularly in terms of climate-change effects on biodiversity. This regional synthesis was undertaken to discern patterns across ecosystems, identify knowledge gaps, and lay the groundwork for future analyses of climate-change vulnerability. Findings from this synthesis indicate that, despite their importance to regional and global biodiversity, insular ecosystems of the southeastern United States have been subjected to a variety of direct and indirect human alterations. In many cases, important questions remain concerning key determinants of ecosystem function. In particular, few empirical investigations in these ecosystems have focused on possible climate-change effects, despite the well-documented ecological effects of climate change at a global level. Long-term management of these ecosystems could benefit from increased scientific effort to characterize and quantify the linkages between changing environmental conditions and the ecological processes that sustain biodiversity.

Ecosystem vulnerability to climate change in the southeastern United States

Two recent investigations of climate-change vulnerability for 19 terrestrial, aquatic, riparian, and coastal ecosystems of the southeastern United States have identified a number of important considerations, including potential for changes in hydrology, disturbance regimes, and interspecies interactions. Complementary approaches using geospatial analysis and literature synthesis integrated information on ecosystem biogeography and biodiversity, climate projections, vegetation dynamics, soil and water characteristics, anthropogenic threats, conservation status, sea-level rise, and coastal flooding impacts. Across a diverse set of ecosystems—ranging in size from dozens of square meters to thousands of square kilometers—quantitative and qualitative assessments identified types of climate-change exposure, evaluated sensitivity, and explored potential adaptive capacity. These analyses highlighted key gaps in scientific understanding and suggested priorities for future research. Together, these studies help create a foundation for ecosystem-level analysis of climate-change vulnerability to support effective biodiversity conservation in the southeastern United States.


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