Connecting Through Climate Change

How the UC Natural Reserve System Is Becoming California’s Canary in the Global-Warming Coal Mine

In January, the UC Office of the President gave the Natural Reserve System $1.9 million to support the first four years of building a network to link all of the reserves in order to track the effects of climate change across the Californian landscape. About two months ago, the bulk of that job landed in the lap of Becca Fenwith, who left her NRS post in Yosemite to become IT director of UC Santa Cruz’s Institute for the Study of Ecological Effects of Climate Impacts.

“We’re still in the start-up phase, but we’re coordinating 125 faculty across the UC system to work together and figure out what climate change is going to do,” said Fenwith. “How is it actually going to affect land management? How is it going to affect people living in California, especially those living on the wild-urban interface, which is an interesting place to be? We’re looking at everything from how lilies are adapting to what’s happening with the chaparral and with the conifers in the oak forest.”

To do so, Fenwith, who also manages general IT for the whole NRS, is installing every imaginable climate-tracking device in as many places as possible, monitoring everything from deep soil to high air. “This is the first coordinated effort,” she explained. “A lot of work has been happening on these reserves, but there hasn’t been any effort in the past to pull it all together and put the information in one place and make it accessible to everyone else.” The result will be a bunch of interconnected data that can be consulted when crafting strategies to deal with climate change. “We will have practical answers that can influence policy,” Fenwith explained.

She knows there is no better place for such a grand project than the NRS. “They’re an invaluable resource,” said Fenwith, who sees the reserves as strategically existing between public parks, which endure human impacts, and conservation trusts, where no access is allowed. “These lands are preserved in perpetuity for research and education,” she said. “There isn’t a system in the world that’s of this size and run by a university that’s supposed to do specifically that.”

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