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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Natural climate solutions: Using nature to lessen climate change effects

Wisconsin ecologists and UW-Madison campus planners are looking to land-based practices to help benefit the environment.

The current climate crisis presents a myriad of challenges: biodiversity loss, increased rainfall, flooding, erosion and extreme weather. The global scope of these effects paints climate change as a daunting threat, but turning back to nature could provide potential solutions, according to the United Nations.  

Land-based practices utilizing nature are a way to help lessen the effects of climate change, according to the Guardian. At the local level, certain instances are being implemented in southern Wisconsin and on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Community members are using practices like ecological restoration and natural climate solutions to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. UW-Madison built green infrastructure projects into its campus, and in southern Wisconsin ecologists are working to restore native ecosystems.  

A microcosm of a larger trend in ecosystem restoration comes into view by zeroing in locally. This trend could be a promising solution to stabilizing the climate and conserving biodiversity on Earth, according to an article in Nature

Restoration solutions in the field 

Thor Gustafson, an ecologist who founded his own restoration firm, Gustafson Guild LLC, works with clients in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless area. His firm takes degraded farmland or personal yards and restores them back to native ecosystems, like prairies.  

Gustafson said he believes there’s a growing awareness among land managers that controlling complex and dynamic ecosystems won’t work in the future. He hopes ecological restoration will become more of a trend.

“Humans are expending a tremendous amount of time and energy and resources to come up with human solutions to problems that would have been mitigated had we not destroyed ecosystems,” Gustafson said. 

Intact native ecosystems provide beneficial services like clean water filtration, nutrients, erosion control and flood mitigation, according to Gustafson. Prairies are especially good at storing carbon because of their deep soils that retain large stores of organic matter, he said.  

“It's a lot easier to have a prairie or have native woodland filtering your water than it is to have really bad water and have to build a huge [filtration] plant,” Gustafson noted. “But I think there's a growing awareness of the services [ecosystems] provide.”

Susan Carpenter, an ecologist and native plant garden curator at the UW-Madison Arboretum, said humans are obligated to help ecosystems and nature because they provide those natural services for free.  

Carpenter and her husband Steve own a 100-acre plot of land in the Driftless area that they actively manage, care for and restore. The land has a diverse range of plant and animal species, and ecosystems like forests, wetlands, prairies and streams. 

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The diversity gives the space a high conservation value, which enabled them to get a conservation easement stating the land will never be developed, Carpenter said.

“Having that diversity is going to probably provide the best kind of insurance for the future of healthy lands,” Carpenter said.

The complexity of whole, intact ecosystems adds to the ecosystem's benefits. When balanced, the intricate web of interrelationships between organisms allows biodiversity to flourish.

“You're not so much protecting each and every little critter, but you're protecting a system which supports itself,” Carpenter said. 

Gustafson said the relationships between native plants, pollinators and other species is an example of these interconnected parts. The unique communities have evolved over thousands of years together and are integral for species to survive over generations. 

“If we start messing with that, and we allow the wrong species to go extinct or we cross a certain critical threshold, we could see the biological collapse of these systems and lose all of the services they provide,” Gustafson said. 

Urban natural solutions on campus

The Campus Planning & Landscape Architecture division of Facilities Planning & Management at UW-Madison implemented urban natural solutions on campus, like green infrastructure. While different from large ecosystem restoration initiatives, the projects use and interact with the land to provide benefits as well.

The 2015 Campus Master Plan includes a Green Infrastructure and Stormwater Management Master Plan, which outlines various projects and opportunities for land use changes on campus over the current decade. 

Green infrastructure is infrastructure that is not a hard surface or pipe and blends science and engineering with living things and art, explained Rhonda James, a senior landscape architect at UW-Madison. 

Examples on campus include green roofs, porous pavement, rain gardens and native species plantings on campus. These features utilize natural land features to help direct and manage ground and stormwater, among other environmental benefits like providing biodiversity. 

According to James, green roofs are particularly beneficial as they collect rainwater, absorb carbon, help buildings stay cooler and absorb heat to help lessen the heat island effect. 

“What we're trying to do with green infrastructure is really marry [functionality and aesthetics] into something that's more performative, in the sense that it's doing something while looking good, and having all these other benefits,” James said.

A tenet in campus planning is to capture water where it lands and get it back into the groundwater where it belongs. This prevents the transfer of pollutants that typically travel with stormwater, said Aaron Williams, director of campus planning and landscape architecture. 

“The environment tells us what it wants to do. Right now, there's so many signs in the environment telling us humans are screwing this up,” Williams said. “I think we have to look back to how the environment functions.”

Land-based initiatives implemented locally connect to the broader worldwide trend of natural climate solutions, and Gustafson claims the livability of our planet depends on them.

“I really want to mitigate climate change and species loss, and I believe intact native ecosystems are the way to do that,” Gustafson said. “The most direct way to do that, certainly.” 

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