Using Climate and Water Models to Examine Future Water Availability and Biodiversity in California and the Great Basin

Lorraine Flint, Alan Flint, Michael J Moran, John Dingman, James H Thorne, Lisa Micheli, Healy Hamilton, Stuart Weiss, Bridget Thrasher, Claudia Tebaldi, Deanne DiPietro, Grant Ballard, Sam Veloz
Posted on: 7/18/2022 - Updated on: 7/17/2023

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As the predicted impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent, natural resource managers are faced with the task of developing climate adaptation plans. These managers need state-of-the-art, scientifically based information upon which to base these management plans and decisions consistently across California and the Great Basin. This project applies historical, current, and projected climate data to a regional water model to examine water availability, biodiversity, and conservation. Analysis of this climate and hydrology data is expected to help managers understand areas in the region and landscape where the effects of climate change are expected to be the most profound. The study also addresses how the environment is likely to change and how certain the scientific community is about these changes. Collaboration among managers, scientists, conservation organizations, and others is expected to guide the utility, understandability, relevance, and accessibility of the findings from this project.

Project Products:

  •  Adapting California's Ecosystems to a Changing Climate (attached below)
    • Significant efforts are underway to translate improved understanding of how climate change is altering ecosystems into practical actions for sustaining ecosystem functions and benefits. We explore this transition in California, where adaptation and mitigation are advancing relatively rapidly, through four case studies that span large spatial domains and encompass diverse ecological systems, institutions, ownerships, and policies. The case studies demonstrate the context specificity of societal efforts to adapt ecosystems to climate change and involve applications of diverse scientific tools (e.g., scenario analyses, downscaled climate projections, ecological and connectivity models) tailored to specific planning and management situations (alternative energy siting, wetland management, rangeland management, open space planning). They illustrate how existing institutional and policy frameworks provide numerous opportunities to advance adaptation related to ecosystems and suggest that progress is likely to be greatest when scientific knowledge is integrated into collective planning and when supportive policies and financing enable action.
  • The impact of climate change uncertainty on California's vegetation and adaptation management (attached below)
    • The impacts of different emission levels and climate change conditions to landscape-scale natural vegetation could have large repercussions for ecosystem services and environmental health. We forecast the risk-reduction benefits to natural landscapes of lowering business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions by comparing the extent and spatial patterns of climate exposure to dominant vegetation under current emissions trajectories (Representative Concentration Pathway, RCP8.5) and envisioned Paris Accord target emissions (RCP4.5). This comparison allows us to assess the ecosystem value of reaching targets to keep global temperature warming under 2°C. Using 350,719 km2 of natural lands in California, USA, and the mapped extents of 30 vegetation types, we identify each type's current bioclimatic envelope by the frequency with which it occupies current climate conditions. We then map the trajectory of each pixel's climate under the four climate futures to quantify areas expected to fall within, become marginal to (outside a 95% probability contour), or move beyond their current climate conditions by the end of the 21st century. In California, these four future climates represent temperature increases of 1.9–4.5°C and a −24.8 to +22.9% change in annual precipitation by 2100. From 158,481 to 196,493 km2 (45–56%) of California's natural vegetation is predicted to become highly climatically stressed under current emission levels (RCP8.5) under the drier and wetter global climate models, respectively. Vegetation in three California ecoregions critical to human welfare, southwestern CA, the Great Valley, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, becomes >50% impacted, including 68% of the lands around Los Angeles and San Diego. However, reducing emissions to RCP4.5 levels reduces statewide climate exposure risk by 86,382–99,726 km2. These projections are conservative baseline estimates because they do not account for amplified drought-related mortality, fires, and beetle outbreaks that have been observed during the current five-year drought. However, these results point to the landscape benefits of emission reductions.


Chornesky, Elizabeth A., Ackerly, David D., Beier, Paul, Davis, Frank W., Flint, Lorraine E., Lawler, Joshua J., Moyle, Peter B., Moritz, Max A., Scoonover, Mary, Byrd, Kristin, Alvarez, Pelayo, Heller, Nicole E., Micheli, Elisabeth R., and Weiss, Stuart B. (2015). Adapting California's Ecosystems to a Changing Climate. BioScience, 65 (3).

Thorne, James H., Choe, Hyeyeong, Boynton, Ryan M., Bjorkman, Jacquelyn, Albright, Whitney, Nydick, Koren, Flint, Alan L., Flint, Lorraine E., and Schwartz, Mark W. (2017). The impact of climate change uncertainty on California's vegetation and adaptation management. Ecosphere, 8 (12).

Affiliated Organizations

The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information.

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