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Adaptation Examples: Ecosystems

Marine life

Adaptation Examples in Ecosystems

Key Points
  • Resource managers are taking steps to protect species diversity and ensure ecosystems remain healthy as the climate changes.
  • Cities and federal agencies are working to protect critical habitats through such efforts as improving stormwater management, restoring coastal wetlands, and identifying at-risk ecosystems.
  • Federal agencies are collaborating with tribal and state governments to develop a national climate adaptation strategy for fish, wildlife, and plants.

Climate change is likely to alter ecosystems and the ability of ecosystems to react to stress. While plants, animals, and microorganisms have been adapting to environmental changes for millions of years, the pace of climate changes happening now will require species to adapt more quickly. Climate change impacts on ecosystems may include salt water intrusion, habitat shifts, increased invasive species survival, enhanced competition for limited resources, and amplification of existing stressors, such as habitat fragmentation and pollution. To learn more about how climate change will likely impact ecosystems, visit the Ecosystems Impacts section.

Natural resource managers across the country are working to increase ecosystem resilience by reducing other stressors and promoting healthy habitats. Ecosystem adaptation measures include a wide variety of activities that can be tailored to address the climate change impacts on specific ecosystems. Specific approaches include:

  • Removing or controlling invasive species
  • Promoting biodiversity and landscape diversity
  • Protecting intact healthy watersheds and natural corridors
  • Collaborating across borders to create habitat linkages
  • Managing wildfire risk with controlled burns and thinning

The following case studies, examples, and related links are illustrative and not intended to be comprehensive.

Resource managers maintain biodiversity in the face of changing environments

Map of the marine protected areas in the United States. The areas include most of United States coastline around the continental United States, Alaska, and the tropical islands. Additionally, the map shows a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone that extends beyond the marine protected areas.

Map of the National Marine Protected Areas System. Source: NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center (2011)

Climate change is accelerating the rate at which species must adapt to new conditions. Changes in climate may threaten species' ability to survive in their current habitats. Some species will be able to migrate to new locations, while other species will see their numbers decline. Ecosystems that have a high degree of species diversity are often more able to adapt to stresses, including climate change. Protecting species can therefore help ecosystems cope with climate change. [1] [2] [3] Natural resource managers can take a variety of approaches to protect species. For example, managers can:

  • Identify species that may be sensitive to changes in temperature, precipitation, water availability, sea level, and ocean chemistry. Refuges can protect species from a variety of stressors, such as development and pollution. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Protected Areas Center manages a network of over 250 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The center plans to consider climate change threats to marine resources as it establishes more MPAs (PDF).
  • Limit hunting or capture of animals that are threatened by climate change. For example, NOAA’s North Pacific Climate Regimes and Ecosystem Productivity program advises fishery resource managers on establishing sustainable harvest limits. [4]
  • Improve monitoring of ecosystems to respond more quickly to outbreaks of diseases and pests that threaten native species. Increased temperatures and changes in competition may increase the potential for these outbreaks. [2]
  • Take a proactive and strategic systems approach to conserve healthy components of watersheds to avoid future water quality impairments and to increase resilience to climate change.

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Communities, private organizations, and federal agencies protect critical habitats

Protecting the water, soil, and air is important to help ecosystems adapt to changing climate conditions. These physical components of ecosystems are essential to healthy habitats. Several ways to protect these components and make ecosystems more resilient to climate change are described below. [1] [2] [3]

  • Communities can improve how they manage stormwater. Flooding and heavy rainfall can lead to erosion along rivers and coasts. Cities like Portland, Oregon are building "green streets" Exit EPA Disclaimer that use plants to reduce stormwater runoff.
  • The EPA is restoring coastal wetlands, which serve as both habitats and natural storm barriers. EPA's Climate Ready Estuaries program is working with coastal managers to assess key vulnerabilities in estuarine habitats and identify adaptation strategies to improve resiliency.
  • Non-profit groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, are working to protect the Prairie Pothole region of the Great Plains, which is an important habitat for waterfowl.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is assessing potential impacts to inform adaptation. BLM is conducting Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REA) to synthesize the existing information about the ecological values, conditions, and trends in ecoregions (large areas with similar ecological conditions, like the Sonoran Desert). The REAs identify important habitats and the potential for climate change, wildfires, invasive species, and development to impact those habitats.

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U.S. develops a National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy

In response to observed and anticipated climate change impacts on America's natural resources, Congress called for the development of a national, government-wide strategy in 2010. The Steering Committee, which consists of representatives from federal, state, and tribal governments, is developing the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, a draft of which is now available. The Strategy will outline a unified approach to maintaining the key terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems needed to sustain fish, wildlife, and plant resources and the services they provide in the face of accelerating climate change.


1. FWS (2010). Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding toAccelerating Climate Change . U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC, USA.

2. NRC (2010). Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. Exit EPA Disclaimer National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

3. CCSP (2008). Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources . A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. [Julius, S.H., J.M. West (eds.), J.S. Baron, B. Griffith, L.A. Joyce, P. Kareiva, B.D. Keller, M.A. Palmer, C.H. Peterson, and J.M. Scott (authors)]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.

4. NOAA Research (2004). North Pacific Climate Regimes and Ecosystem Productivity Science Plan . National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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