Understanding the Role of Forest Resources in Reducing Community Vulnerability to Climate Change

Lead PIs

Neelam Poudyal, University of Georgia, School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Cassandra Johnson Gaither - USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, SRS-4952

Partners or Collaborators

Jeff Hepinstall-Cymerman, University of Georgia, School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Project description:

Climate change studies indicate that gradual increases in temperature, precipitation and the frequency of heat waves will also deepen the vulnerability of human populations and will put more communities at risk. The growing literature on social vulnerability indicates that the resiliency of human life and community structures both depend on socioeconomic characteristics and environmental factors. Since climate change takes place gradually, the public may not appreciate the immediate danger from the effects of this global phenomenon. However, there are certain aspects of climate change that people can directly perceive. For example, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that heat waves increased significantly around the end of 20th century and early 21st century. The IPCC has also warned that the world will observe increased heat waves in the future. Increased heat effects are predicted to increase community vulnerability due to more heat-related illness and health care costs, energy consumption, declines in crop production, and more.

Research is needed regarding the actions that can be taken to increase the resiliency of local communities to climate change shocks. For example, appropriate land use planning, and promotion and adoption of innovative and cost effective air conditioning technology are solutions that could be adopted in the short-term. Similarly, urban communities facing intense heat island effects may benefit from appropriate land cover and land use planning and green vegetation management. A number of recent studies have established evidence that vegetation management could mediate heat effects in urban areas. If increasing canopy coverage could reduce the vulnerability of poor, tree-less communities in some urban areas, community or urban forestry programs could be a cost-effective long-term policy intervention. Such programs will not only buffer economically disadvantaged people from intense heat stress and related health problems, but also will increase community well-being by reducing residential energy costs, and bringing a number of ecosystem service co-benefits to the community. Understanding of the role of urban forestry in reducing climate change vulnerability could have important policy implications in terms of designing adaptive strategies and especially in developing heat emergency response plans at local and regional levels.

The objective of this research project is to evaluate the role of forest resources in reducing the community vulnerability specific to increased heat effect due to climate change. We will also explore how various levels of canopy coverage, the health of the forest, and different ownership and management systems affect this relationship.

Research Approach

This first step of the project will be to create a Social Vulnerability to Heat Index using three types of variables. The first variable is exposure, which captures how communities are exposed to potential heat effects and may include heat wave data, % hot days in county, etc. The second variable issensitivity, which captures the sensitivity of the population living in the community to heat shocks, and may include data on the poverty rate, health data, % farm labor, % homeless, % without air conditioned facilities, etc. The third variable is adaptability, which describes the potential ability of the community to manage increased heat stress and may include data on education, political views, heat/cold insulating resources per capita, etc. Yet another important variable to adapt to the heat effect is the forest coverage. A number of forest resource variables such as the extent of canopy coverage, amount of forest, species types (hardwood, softwood, mixed etc.), management regime (protected, managed) and forest pattern (fragmented, aggregated) are combined to represent the forest resources as adaptive resource. The final value of the vulnerability index will be computed both with and without the forest resource component to compare and evaluate the extent to which the forest resource determine the vulnerability of a community to heat effects of climate change. Resulting index created at county level will be mapped to visualize the areas of high and low vulnerability areas, and to aid further regional analysis of vulnerability to heat effect. We will compare and contrast the effects of these forest attributes in reducing the heat related vulnerability among different communities (urban-rural, affluent-poor, forest or farm dependent-service dependent etc.). Findings will shed light into potential implication of forest ownership and management systems on moderating community vulnerability to the effects of climate change.