Climate-Smart Adaptation for the North-central California Coast and Ocean

Sara Hutto
Posted on: 10/28/2016 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Sara Hutto

Project Summary

The North-central California coast and ocean is a globally significant and extraordinarily productive marine and coastal ecosystem that boasts an array of local, state and federal protected areas and other managed lands. Despite this richness and attention to conservation, this region is still vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In response, the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) led a collaborative planning process to characterize the climate vulnerability of the region's most significant natural resources, and develop climate-smart management strategies to reduce resource vulnerability and enhance resilience. A team of over 50 representatives from federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions identified and assessed the climate change vulnerability of 44 natural resources, including eight habitats, populations of 31 species, and five ecosystem services, by considering exposure and sensitivity to climate changes and non-climate stressors, and capacity to adapt. Coastal habitats in the study region, including beaches and dunes, outer coast estuaries, and rocky intertidal, along with associated species and ecosystem services, were identified through this assessment as being most vulnerable, and were prioritized for development of management actions.



In 2009, the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank Sanctuary Advisory Councils recognized the importance of understanding climate change impacts to sanctuary resources, and called for the formation of a working group of local scientists from 16 agencies, organizations, and institutions to assess and downscale global climate change information into a regional climate change survey for north-central California coast and ocean ecosystems. The resulting Climate Change Impacts Report documents recent observations and potential impacts, including: observed increase in surface ocean temperature offshore of the continental shelf; observed increase in extreme weather events (winds, waves, and storms); expected decrease in seawater pH due to uptake of carbon dioxide by the ocean; observed northward shift of key species (including Humboldt squid, volcano barnacle, gray whales, and bottlenose dolphins); possible shift in dominant phytoplankton (from diatom to dinoflagellate blooms); and the potential for effects of climate change to be compounded by parallel environmental changes associated with local human activities. This document serves as a robust, peer-reviewed, and scientifically sound foundation for climate adaptation planning. Recommendations from this report include the reduction of manageable stressors to enhance ecosystem resilience and the creation of policies and management strategies to minimize future impacts. In response to the recommendations and final report, the GFNMS Climate-Smart Conservation Program, in partnership with Greater Farallones Association, was begun as an effort to integrate adaptation planning, as well as monitoring, mitigation, and climate change education, into sanctuary management. 

The goal of the project was to enable marine resource managers to respond to, plan, and manage for the impacts of climate change to habitats, species, and ecosystem services within the North-central California coast and ocean region. Specifically, the project sought to integrate climate-smart adaptation into existing management frameworks, and provide guidance to help ensure long-term viability of the habitats and resources that natural resource agencies are mandated to protect.

To meet the project goal, the following overarching objectives were identified:

  1. Produce scientifically sound vulnerability assessments of focal resources through expert elicitation and literature review. 
  2. Convene a Working Group of the Sanctuary Advisory Council to develop and prioritize climate change adaptation recommendations that can be feasibly implemented by managers, while considering a range of plausible future climate scenarios. 
  3. Develop an implementation plan for sanctuary management based on the approved adaptation actions. 
  4. Serve as a pilot climate-smart adaptation project for other marine protected areas, such as national marine sanctuaries, statewide, nationally, and internationally.

The project was funded by the GFNMS, California Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and Seed Fund.

To effectively manage these resources in a changing climate, it was critical to explicitly link vulnerability to management actions. This was accomplished through a strong collaboration of over a dozen partners in the science and management community that convened to develop strategies to address multiple stressors and resources, and discover multiple benefits for management actions. This Climate-Smart Adaptation Working Group sought to ensure long-term viability of the species and habitats natural resource agencies are mandated to protect, and the public values. The Working Group developed 50 priority strategies and 28 lower priority strategies in 10 categories, including Alleviate Climate Impacts, Manage Dynamic Conditions, Promote Education, Protect and Restore Habitat, Limit Human Disturbance, Address Invasive Species, Promote Landward Migration, Invest in Science Needs, Protect Species, and Manage Water Quality. These strategies have been distributed to all management entities in the region, and in November 2016, GFNMS released a Climate Action Plan to detail implementation of select strategies. 


Project Components: 

Phase 1 – Vulnerability Assessment 

I. Identify scope of adaptation project: Project Coordinator, Sara Hutto, and former Project PI, Kelley Higgason, spent several months reviewing literature specific to climate change adaptation planning processes, and brought together key GFNMS staff (including the research coordinator, resource protection coordinator and superintendent) in August 2013 to develop the geographic and temporal scope of the adaptation project, and to define the project goals.

II. Develop draft list of focal resources for the North-central California coast and ocean. Staff and project partners developed a draft list of focal resources (species, habitats, and ecosystem services) from internal planning documents (including the GFNMS Condition Report and Management Plan) and external research to be used in the selection of final focal resources during Decision-Support Workshop 1.

III. Convene Project Planning Committee A planning committee of project partners, including Point Blue, EcoAdapt, National Park Service Pacific West Region, California Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium, Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, and the GFNMS was convened in September 2013. The Committee advised on workshop design and organization and helped develop workshop materials. The committee continued an advisory role throughout the project, and helped review workshop outcomes.

IV. Conduct two decision-support workshops: 1) Focal Resources, 2) Vulnerability Assessments. Following the successful model developed by EcoAdapt for the Sierra Nevada Adaptation Project, Focal Resources Workshop attendees finalized the draft list of North-central California coast and ocean focal resources using a set of evaluation criteria, and identified information needs for the vulnerability assessments. Vulnerability Assessment Workshop attendees assessed vulnerability (including sensitivity, exposure and adaptive capacity) of focal resources to climate change impacts using supporting data and information prepared by staff and the Project Planning Committee. 


Phase 2 – Climate-Smart Working Group and Adaptation Implementation 

V: Convene Climate-Smart Adaptation Working Group. Based on expertise and jurisdictional boundaries, a sub-set of representatives from local, state, and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions that participated in the stakeholder workshops were invited to serve on a Climate-Smart Adaptation Working Group that met five times over the course of 2015. The working group: 1) defined distinct climate scenarios for the study region and 2) developed prioritized adaptation recommendations.

VI. Climate-Smart Adaptation Working Group defined climate scenarios:
GFNMS staff and Point Blue Conservation Science summarized vulnerability assessment results and compiled climate projections and anticipated impacts for a climate change profile of the study region. Working group members defined distinct scenarios for the study region based on the most uncertain climatic and non-climatic drivers of change (based on the climate change profile) and the most important (greatest impact) climatic and non-climate drivers of change (based on vulnerability assessments). Scenario planning is used to overcome climate uncertainty by focusing on important and uncertain climate impacts to develop adaptation actions for multiple, plausible climate futures.

VII. Develop adaptation actions: GFNMS staff and Point Blue summarized the developed climate scenarios and created discussion templates modeled after the “Futures of Wild Marin” workshop, to aid the working group in brainstorming adaptation actions. Based on National Wildlife Federation and Point Blue Climate-Smart Conservation Principles, and using the developed scenarios as a framework, working group members: 1) define criteria for prioritization of adaptation actions (e.g. feasibility, cost-effectiveness, climate-smart, collaborative); 2) brainstorm potential management actions for each climate scenario (in an iterative process, which may result in further revision of scenarios); 3) evaluate and prioritize brainstormed actions using defined criteria; and 4) identify specific actions that are currently occurring or may be implemented immediately as pilot adaptation responses. The working group chair and project coordinator presented the final recommended actions to the GFNMS Sanctuary Advisory Council in March 2016, and the Council edited and approved the actions. These actions were then forwarded to the sanctuary superintendent as well as other coastal resource management agencies in the region for consideration in their current or future adaptation planning efforts, including Golden Gater National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, California State Parks, and Counties of San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma.

VIII. Develop Climate Action Plan: Based on the approved adaptation actions, staff, in consultation with the GFNMS superintendent and project partners, released a Climate Action Plan in November 2016.

IX. Design pilot Green Resilient Shorelines Adaptation Projects: Staff, in consultation with the GFNMS superintendent and project partners, will design two to four pilot Green Resilient Shorelines (GRS) adaptation projects as a subset of the recommended adaptation actions for the study area, including: implementation and construction time line, project costs, monitoring plan, and outreach plan. GRS projects will help achieve the strategic goal of the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium, which has identified GRS as the current focus of an effort to promote a regional approach and alliance to wetlands restoration. Examples of potential GRS projects include: restoring the hydrologic function and floodplain in Bolinas Lagoon by road and levee removal to allow upland migration of the lagoon; building causeways over key coastal drainages to allow upland migration and address flooding in the lagoon; working with farmers to restore the upland floodplain and allow deposition of sediment in fields instead of in the lagoon; and seagrass restoration and expansion in Tomales Bay to provide increased habitat and carbon sequestration.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The vulnerability assessment report identified beaches/dunes, estuaries, and rocky intertidal as the most vulnerable habitats in the region, and served as the foundation for adaptation planning. The climate adaptation plan was released in November 2016.

Lessons learend include (1) clearly define a goal(s) and desired outcomes and remind stakeholders and workshop participants of these throughout the project, and (2) involve as many partners as possible from the beginning. 

This project has served as a model for other MPAs nationwide, and has been highlighted internationally as a successful coastal climate adaptation case study through 1) a publication of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Nairobi Work Programme, 2) a workshop of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2015, and 3) the Commission on Environmental Cooperation at their North American Pacific Marine Parks Partnership Workshop in 2016. 


Hutto, S. (2016). Climate-Smart Adaptation for the North-central California Coast and Ocean. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg [Case study on a project of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary]. Retrieved from CAKE:…;(Last updated November 2016)

Project Contacts

Position: Ocean Climate Program Coordinator

Affiliated Organizations

Designated in 1981, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) spans 1,279-square-miles (966 square nautical miles) just north and west of San Francisco Bay, and protects open ocean, nearshore tidal flats, rocky intertidal areas, estuarine wetlands, subtidal reefs, and coastal beaches within its boundaries.


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