Skip to main content


Effectively communicating the multi-scale effects of climate change to improve natural resource adaptation in the U.S. northern Rockies


Synopsis and Background: Rapid biophysical changes occurring in forests of the western U.S. and in temperate zones world-wide highlight a need for understanding and adapting to climate change impacts. Land managers, policy makers, and community officials lack local-scale climate change science and are urgently calling for research to inform local and regional forest management decisions. Nevertheless, a substantial disconnect remains between emerging scientific information and its application in management decisions. Over the last three years, the Northern Rockies research team (one of 6 NSF-IGERT funded teams) at the University of Idaho aimed to address some of these disconnects through the synthesis and communication of important climate-related changes occurring to forest ecosystems in the U.S. northern Rockies.

The NSF IGERT-funded doctoral students (Jarod Blades, Kerry Kemp, Zion Klos) with the assistance of one other doctoral student (Wade Tinkham) and faculty advisors (Penny Morgan, Troy Hall, Jo Ellen Force, Tim Link, Alistair Smith, and Phil Higuera) made substantial achievements toward communicating and facilitating understanding of multi-scale climate change science to land managers, collaborative groups, and private industry representatives in Idaho and Montana during a series of interactive workshops in the fall of 2012. These workshops focused on climate change science and its usefulness in making land management decisions. This accomplishment was possible because of funding and support from the NSF IGERT program, and allowed the team to address this complex and multi-faceted topic through a novel and interdisciplinary approach.

Approach: This team’s research focused on the development and exchange of current climate change science across scientific-agency-policy boundaries (i.e. boundary objects). Recently, boundary objects have been identified as useful tools for facilitating the transfer of knowledge between scientists, land managers and policy makers. One goal of this research was to enhance the understanding of the cognitive processes by which boundary objects may operate, namely by impacting risk perceptions, credibility, and salience of climate change impacts related to forest management decisions. Our team conducted four climate change workshops in the U.S. northern Rockies in which students presented current science, distributed and integrated across various disciplines and scales, through a variety of workshop activities that allowed 109 U.S. Forest Service personnel, scientists, and engaged stakeholders to participate in open and reasoned discussions.

Gathering pre- and post-workshop data allowed the IGERT students to evaluate changes in participant thinking and behavior related to using climate change science in land management decisions, and explore at which scale and to what extent certain topic areas (e.g. changes in water resource availability, fire regimes, vegetation distributions, etc.) were more or less salient. The team collected 169 questionnaires (91 pre, 78 post) and 95 semi-structured interviews (60 pre, 35 post). During the workshops, participants were asked to reflect on two primary open-ended questions: what are the management implications of the various information presented, and what are the gaps in current understanding of climate change that make adaptation more challenging from a land management perspective? Group discussions were synthesized into the most salient concerns. Pre- and post-workshop data from questionnaires and semi-structured interviews also allowed the research team to evaluate changes in individual behavior and opinions related to using climate change science in land management decisions.

Findings: Workshop participation significantly influenced risk perceptions associated with anticipated changes in temperature, precipitation, and wildland fire. Participants also reported a substantial increase in their perceptions of the effectiveness of management activities to adapt and mitigate the potential impacts of climate change, and were more willing to consider novel restoration objectives in response to predicted climate change effects on forest composition. Overall, participants demonstrated a significant increase in their perceptions of the credibility and usefulness of climate change science in land management, notably for local-scale actions. However, during small group discussions many participants expressed a preference to continue using climate change science for broader-scale land use planning and programmatic documents rather than site-specific local actions. Funding, time, and support from supervisors were widely cited as barriers to adaptation.

Additional stakeholder and public outreach activities regarding the science of climate-related forest changes was broadly supported. The research team continues to receive ongoing requests to conduct additional workshops and is currently giving additional presentations to a variety of audiences ranging from K-12 classrooms to logging and timber organizations.

Address Goals

Discovery: The interdisciplinary mixed-methods workshops conducted by the Northern Rockies Research Team, and described in this Highlight, represent a novel approach to understanding and effectively communicating climate change science. Developing an integrated theoretical and methodological framework allowed the research team to understand the cognitive and organizational factors that underlie the use of climate change science in land management decisions. This achievement advances the frontiers of knowledge in climate change communication research, and emphasizes collaborative opportunities and potential benefits related to understanding and effectively communicating the salience of this now universal issue. Furthermore, the research process, methods, and findings lend themselves well to future longitudinal research possibilities and broad applications. Findings from the team’s work will advance understanding of more effective ways to communicate increasingly complex climate science such that it can reach people making on-the-ground management decisions. The team’s detailed quantitative and qualitative assessment of the workshops highlights specific recommendations about the scales and type of climate change science that are most salient to land managers in the Rocky Mountain west. Other groups or individuals seeking to bridge the research-management boundary and more effectively communicate information needed for climate change adaptation on public lands may implement these findings.

Secondary Goal: Learning. The opportunity for these graduate students to conduct research and work in an interdisciplinary setting involving very diverse stakeholders allowed personal and professional development and problem solving that would not have been possible in a traditional disciplinary approach to graduate education. The gains in scientific literacy across multiple and integrated disciplines has provided the students and faculty with a foundation from which to better address the issue of climate change at local, regional, and global scales. The research team is currently working towards two refereed journal publications with plans for more in the future – and their work has been presented at over half a dozen professional conferences to date. The work of the IGERT students involved in this project should have a broad and lasting impact in the realm of climate change science and communication, while the public outreach nature of the workshops provided broad exposure of salient and current science to diverse audiences. Learning was achieved at a broader level within the participants of the climate change workshops. Advancing the scientific and climate change literacy of public and private land managers was another objective of this project. Many land managers, though very experienced in natural resource sciences, have received little to no education specific to climate science within their background. These workshops were designed to get audience members of all backgrounds up-to-speed on the science behind the issues, and provided an interactive chance for key stakeholders of the northern Rockies region to ask questions and be provided with detailed answers. Small group discussions within the workshops allowed for peer-to-peer information sharing and education, with many innovative ideas for climate change adaption being fostered and recorded through the process. These and other findings are currently being synthesized by the research team for dissemination to, and education of, the larger land management community of the western U.S.