Climate Change and...

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments


PreparersLinda Joyce, Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO, and Maria Janowiak, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI.


As knowledge about the effects of climate change grows, responses to climate change become more important to land managers (1, 2, 3). Climate change vulnerability assessments provide valuable information that can be used to develop management actions in response to climate change (4). These assessments synthesize and integrate scientific information, quantitative analyses, and expert-derived information in order to determine the degree to which specific resources, ecosystems, or other features of interest are susceptible to the effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability assessments recognize that a system's vulnerability is related to the nature, magnitude, and variability of climate change that it is exposed to, as well as the system's sensitivity to changes and its capacity to adapt.

Vulnerability assessments are increasingly being used to assess risks associated with climate change and natural and human systems (5). The information and methods used to create assessments vary widely across resources and sectors, although there are a number of notable similarities. Vulnerability assessments are often most valuable when they are "place-based" and tailored to best fit the resource or system of interest, the geographic scale and location of the analysis area, the available sources of information, and management issues or concerns (6). Because climate change assessments inform conservation or management actions, the tools developed to support the use of the assessment results should be tailored to the relevant geographic scales and decision levels (7).

Vulnerability assessments, like other climate change assessments, specifically work to recognize, evaluate, and communicate the uncertainties associated with climate change within a system or area of interest. While much is known about the effects of climate change at a global scale, the ability to analyze effects and vulnerabilities at the regional and local scales important to managers is more challenging and has a higher level of scientific uncertainty. Vulnerability assessments often use multiple scenarios of future conditions or other quantitative methods to explore areas of uncertainty and to evaluate impacts and potential management strategies against a range of plausible futures. Some recent assessments attempt to describe the uncertainty associated with the reports' conclusions (e.g., 8, 9).

Key Features

Vulnerability assessments typically contain a synthesis of the currently available scientific information to describe the degree to which the key resources, ecosystems, or other features of interest are affected (adversely or beneficially) by the variability of current climate or the potential changes in climate. The effect may be direct (e.g., reduced regeneration in response to increased temperatures) or indirect (e.g., damages caused by an increase in the frequency of wildfire or drought).  The amount of information on climate change effects is constantly increasing so that this synthesis can be developed using a number of existing resources, including climate change impact assessments, peer-reviewed research papers, and other reports and resources.  

Because existing information resources may not be able to fully describe the vulnerability for the specific area of focus, assessments can also include a more extensive quantitative analysis to explore a variety of future climates and their effects. New area-specific analyses can be used to enhance what is already known. A number of different quantitative approaches may be taken, such as simulation or statistical models, and will depend upon the feature of interest. The use of multiple scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions and multiple climate models can facilitate the exploration of a range of future climate conditions. Further, the use of multiple biological and ecological models can help to determine the range of sensitivity of and exposure of climate change to key resources.

Within the area of interest, human activities can both depend upon and influence natural systems. Describing the interactions of current stressors, such as land use change, with ecosystem dynamics and associated human systems will help establish the context in which the current and future effects of climate change may take place. Approaches to identify societal vulnerabilities to future changes in resources and ecosystems dynamics have used quantitative and qualitative methods (10, 11). Consideration of the societal implications of climate change can provide a broader view of management challenges posed by climate change and may begin a discussion of the role of communities in the context of changing resources and ecosystems.   

Drawing upon the expertise of scientists, land managers, and stakeholders can enhance the quality and relevance of a vulnerability assessment. There will be multiple types and sources of information used in the vulnerability assessment, and this information will be integrated across the specific resources, ecosystems, or other features of interest. Scientists and managers can be assembled to use their place-based knowledge and experience to synthesize the existing and new information and identify the vulnerabilities for the features of interest. Expert-derived information is most valuable when qualified regarding the certainty, evidence, and underlying assumptions and reasoning (4).

Vulnerability assessments do not set priorities or make decisions for management action. Instead, they inform the development of management activities, such as where to focus management efforts or what items should be monitored (4).  The assessment may identify where monitoring might be valuable to gain more information on the status of species or habitats and their responses to changes in climate. Additionally, the assessment may include information on adaptation options that may be available to managers.

References Cited

1. Baron, J.S.; Gunderson, L.; Allen, C.D.; Fleishman, E.; McKenzie, D.; Meyerson, L.A.; Oropeza, J.; Stephenson, N. 2009. Options for National Parks and Reserves for Adapting to Climate Change. Environmental Management 44(6): 1033:1042

2. Griffith, B.; Scott, J.M.; Adamcik, R.; Ashe, D.; Czech, B.; Fischman, R.; Gonzalez, P.; Lawler, J.; McGuire, A.D.; Pidgorna, A. 2009. Climate Change Adaptation for the US National Wildlife Refuge System. Environmental Management 44(6): 1043-1052

3. Joyce, L.A.; Blate, G.M.; McNulty, S.G.; Millar, C.I.; Moser, S.C.; Neilson, R.P.; Peterson, D.L. 2009. Managing for Multiple Resources under Climate Change: National Forests. Environmental Management. 44(6):1022-1032.

4. Glick, P., B.A. Stein, and N.A. Edelson, editors. 2011. Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. Available online at:

5. U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2011. The United States National Climate Assessment. Uses of Vulnerability Assessments for the National Climate Assessment. NCA Report Series, Volume 9. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC.

6. Turner, B. L., II; Kasperson, R.E.; Matson, P.A.: , McCarthy, J.J.; Corell, R.W.; Christensen, L.; Eckley, N.; Kasperson, J.X.; ; Luers, A.; Martello, M.L.; Polsky, C.; Pulsipher, A.; Schiller, A. 2003. A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100(14): 8074-8079.

7. National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Analysis of global change assessments: lessons learned. Committee on Analysis of Global Change Assessments. Washington, DC: National Academy Press

8. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Available at

9. Joyce, L.; Cross, M.; Girvatz, E. 2011. Addressing Uncertainty in Vulnerability Assessments. In Glick, P., B.A. Stein, and N.A. Edelson, eds. 2011. Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. Pages 68-73. Available online at:

10. Preston, B.L.; Crooke, C.; Measham, T.G.; Smith, T.F.; Gorddad, R. 2009. Igniting Change in Local Government: Lessons from a Bushfire Vulnerability Assessment. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 14:251-283.

11. Laidler, G.J.; Ford, J.D.; Gough, W.A.; Ikummaq, T.; Gagnon, A.S.; Kowal, S.; Qrunnut, K.; Irngaut C. 2009. Travelling and Hunting in a Changing Arctic: Assessing Inuit Vulnerability to Sea Ice Change in Igloolik, Nunavut. Climatic Change 94:363-397.

How to cite this webpage: Joyce, Linda A.; Janowiak, Maria K. (July 01, 2011). Climate Change Assessments. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.

Related Research

Climate Change Response Framework in Northern Wisconsin
This project provides information and resources to land managers throughout northern Wisconsin as they begin to incorporate climate change into land management planning and activities. A number of products have been created through this project to help bridge the gap between climate change research and on-the-ground management activities, including the creation of an Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis for the forests of northern Wisconsin.
Contact: Chris Swanston, Maria Janowiak

Adapting to Climate Change in Olympic National Forest
The Climate Change Adaptation Case Study at Olympic National Forest, with Olympic National Park as a partner, had the objective of determining how to adapt management of federal lands on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, to climate change. The case study process involved science-based sensitivity assessments, review of management activities and constraints, and adaptation workshops in each of four focus areas (hydrology and roads, vegetation, wildlife, and fisheries). The process produced concrete adaptation options for Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park, and illustrated the utility of place-based vulnerability assessment and scientist-manager workshops in adapting to climate change.
Contact: David Peterson

Watershed Vulnerability Assessments on National Forests
Watershed vulnerability assessment as currently being developed in the Forest Service is a strategic assessment process that describes conditions, processes, and interactions at intermediate scales, adapting broad guidance, analysis, and approaches to ecosystem management to particular places at management-relevant scales. The draft assessment process was piloted on 11 National Forests in 2010. The goal of the pilot watershed vulnerability assessment was to quantify the current and projected future condition of watersheds as affected by climate change to inform management decision making.
Contact: Michael Furniss

Recommended Reading

Glick, P., B.A. Stein, and N.A. Edelson, editors. 2011. Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to
Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. Available online at:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2005. Guidance Notes for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Addressing Uncertainties. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007b. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Parry, M.L., Canziani, O.F., Palutikof, J.P., vander Linden P.J., Hanson, C.E. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Available at

The Nature Conservancy. 2009. Conservation Action Planning Guidelines for Developing Strategies in the Face of Climate Change.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 2008. Compendium on Methods and Tools to Evaluate Impacts of, Vulnerability and Adaptation to, Climate Change.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2009. A Framework for Categorizing the Relative Vulnerability of Threatened and Endangered Species to Climate Change. National Center for Environmental Assessment, Washington, D.C.; EPA/600/R-09/011.

Willows, R.I. and R.K. Connell. (eds.). 2003. Climate Adaptation: Risk, Uncertainty and Decision-Making. UKCIP Technical Report. UKCIP, Oxford.

Related Tools

Many tools are available to help managers incorporate climate change science into vulnerability assessments and other documents. For more information on these tools, visit the Climate Change and Carbon Tools page.

Related Links

Publications and Assessment Reports from the United States Global Change Research Program.

Vulnerability Assessment, Climate Change Impacts, and Adaptation Measures, Chapter 6 in 2010 U.S. Climate Action Report.

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