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Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
Contact Information
  • Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
  • 333 Broadway SE. Suite 115
  • Albuquerque, NM 87102-3497
  • 505-724-3660
  • 505-724-3688 (fax)
You are here: Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems / Research by Project / Vulnerability Assessments for Aquatic Species

Vulnerability Assessments: Synthesis and Application for Aquatic Species and their Habitats

Project Title

Vulnerability Assessments: Synthesis and Application for Aquatic Species and their Habitats

View the final report: Synthesis of Aquatic Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments for the Interior West (pdf)



The aquatics synthesis project aims to improve access and application of relevant climate change data for aquatic resource managers and researchers. The Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation Cooperative (SR LCC), recognizing the need for syntheses and tools for climate change adaptation, has sponsored this effort, which will provide clear guidelines to identify appropriate impact studies and measures to effectively develop management strategies for the Western U.S. This project is focused on vulnerability assessments, which employ a systematic method for measuring and addressing information on potential climate change impacts for a region or resource of interest (Glick et al., 2011; Friggens et al., 2014). The primary benefit of vulnerability assessments is that they supply a system to rank relative targets according to their expected response to climate related impacts and provide information pinpointing the cause of vulnerability for valued resources. However, to benefit from currently available vulnerability assessments, managers must be able to access and understand information regarding their management target, which is hindered by the diversity of the current vulnerability literature. A priority of this project is to create an interactive tool that effectively links vulnerability assessments with management questions and assessment findings with management actions.


Maps depicting increased water stress
Averyt et al. 2013
The western U.S. is expected to see increased water stress index by mid-century (2040-61) as compared to historic averages (1900-1970)

The conservation of western riparian systems is of particular concern because these areas support a disproportionate amount of the regional biodiversity and are likely to be strongly affected by changes in climate (Seager et al., 2007; Field and others, 2007; Furniss et al., 2012 ). Recent reviews of terrestrial-based systems (Friggens et al., 2014) included 14 assessments that consider the vulnerability of Western or Southwestern riparian species or habitats to climate change. These assessments identify several issues including increased water temperatures with multiple effects for temperature dependent species, changes in precipitation events, decreased snowpack, changes to the timing of flood regimes, less flow, reduced water tables, and the spread of invasive species in both aquatic and riparian habitats (Friggens et al., 2014). For this project, we review and analyze vulnerability assessments of aquatic species and habitats within the Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation Cooperative (SR LCC). The SR LCC encompasses the Upper Colorado River Basin and portions of the Lower Colorado and Rio Grande Basins. These systems represent some of the most critical water sources in the west and are likely to experience some of the most extreme changes in climate (Christensen et al., 2007; Theobald et al., 2010; Furniss et al., 2012).

Through a synthesis and the development of an interactive guidance tool, we will increase the accessibility of information to improve and support management strategies and planning efforts. Vulnerability assessments consider not only expected response of resources, but also examine the way in which a resource is affected, often in relation to other resources, to better identify management intervention points. Selecting the appropriate type of assessment requires a clear understanding of how assessments are conducted and how vulnerability measures inform adaptive management actions. We will provide guidance for managers and conservationists interested in using these methods to identify vulnerabilities and management strategies and enable better interpretation of currently available data, thereby increasing their capacity to use vulnerability assessment to inform management decisions.

These activities will also support increased collaboration between diverse partners by providing data as well as methods for interpreting that data that is relevant to multiple potential management needs.


Averyt, K.; J. Meldrum; P. Caldwell; G. Sun; S. McNulty; A. Huber-Lee; and N. Madden. 2013. Sectoral contributions to surface water stress in the coterminous United States. Environmental Research Letters 8: 035046 (9pp). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/035046.

Christensen, J. R., et al. 2007: Regional climate Projections. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Quin, M. Manning, et al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, NY, USA.

Christensen, N., and D. Lettenmaier. 2007. A multimodal ensemble approach to assessment of climate change impacts on the hydrology and water resources of the Colorado River Basin. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 11: 1417-1434.

Field, C., L. Mortsch, M. Brklacich [and others]. 2007. Chapter 14. North America. Pages 617-652 in Marry, Costanza, Palutikoff et al., (eds) Climate Change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the 4th assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, Cambridge University Press, Cambride, UK.

Furniss, Michael J.; Roby, Ken B.; Cenderelli, Dan; Chatel, John; Clifton, Caty F.;Clingenpeel, Alan; Hays, Polly E.; Higgins, Dale; Hodges, Ken; Howe, Carol; Jungst, Laura; Louie, Joan; Mai, Christine; Martinez, Ralph; Overton, Kerry; Staab, Brian P.; Steinke, Rory; Weinhold, Mark. 2013. Assessing the vulnerability of watersheds to climate change: results of national forest watershed vulnerability pilot assessments. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-884. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 32 p. plus appendix.

Friggens, M.; Bagne, K.; Finch, D.; Falk, D.; Triepke, J.; Lynch, A. 2013. Review and recommendations for climate change vulnerability assessment approaches with examples from the Southwest. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-309. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 106 p.

Glick, Patty; Stein, Bruce A.; Edelson, Naomi A., eds. 2011. Scanning the conservation horizon: A guide to climate change vulnerability assessment. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. 168 p.

Seager, R., [and others]. 2007. Model predictions of an imminent transition to a more arid climate in Southwestern North America. Science 316: 1181-1184.

Theobald, D., D. Merritt, and J. Norman, III. 2010. Assessment of threats to riparian ecosystems in the Western U.S. A report presented to The Western Environmental Threats Assessment Center, Priveville, OR: USDA Stream Systems Technology Center and Colorado State University, Fort Collins. 61 p.

GSD Principal Investigators

Finch, Deborah    Program Manager and Supervisory Biologist    505-724-3671
Friggens, Megan MacKellar    Research Ecologist    505-724-3679

Cooperators and Sponsors

Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation Cooperative

Bureau of Reclamation

Related Links

Bureau of Reclamations recent risk assessments and climate change reports

Ongoing activities in the West: Western Water Association

A source of literature and planning documents covering the U.S.: Template for Assessing Climate change Impacts and Management Options (TACCIMO)

The Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GNLCC) project on aquatic vulnerability assessments for the Northwest America

A Bibliography of vulnerability assessment tools and case studies for the Great Basin

Recent publication describing vulnerability assessments for multiple watersheds within National Forests in the West

Climate Change Resource Center

Assessing the Vulnerability of Water and Watersheds to Climate Change

SAVS: A System for Assessing Vulnerability of Species to Climate Change

Project Products
Drought effect on Lake Powell: 18 months apart
John Dohrenwend
Matching photographs taken 18 months apart during the most serious period of recent drought show a significant decrease in Lake Powell.