Adapting Natural Areas to Climate Change

New York City is home to over 7,000 acres of ecologically diverse, native forest — a vast natural resource that plays a large role in how the city adapts to challenges presented by climate change. While trees can reduce the negative impacts of climate change, forests themselves are susceptible to climate stressors and degradation. These natural resources are not self-sustaining — they require forestry management and care in order to grow and thrive.

Forward thinking and adaptive planning is required to maintain and enhance climate change benefits from local healthy forests. Through our projects and partnerships, the Natural Areas Conservancy is gaining a better understanding of New York City’s natural resources and climate change. With this knowledge, we’re developing resources that will advance the city’s planning, restoration, and conservation efforts now and into the future.

Calculating Carbon Storage and Sequestration in New York City’s Natural Area Forests

The value of rural forests in mitigating climate change is well understood. However, in urban settings, the contribution of forests in capturing and storing carbon is not well quantified. In 2019, the NAC’s conservation scientists and researchers used extensive forest assessment data to calculate the amount of carbon sequestered and stored in New York City’s forested natural areas. Learn more about this study by reading the summary or the full report.

We completed this study to better understand the value of this resource in mitigating climate change and to evaluate the role of restoration and management in influencing carbon capture. When trees die, they emit their stored carbon and therefore increase carbon levels in the atmosphere. With urban natural areas under threat from long-standing challenges like development and the increased prevalence of invasive plants, better forest management is critical in New York City’s fight against climate change.

Our findings represent the most comprehensive carbon accounting for New York City’s forested natural areas.

Key Takeaways From the Study:

  • NYC’s natural areas are storing and sequestering carbon at a similar amount per acre as rural forests.
  • Forested natural areas make up a quarter of the total tree canopy in NYC but account for 69% of the carbon stored and 83% of carbon sequestered of trees across the city.
  • Forested natural areas store 3x more carbon than all of NYC’s street trees.
  • Carbon sequestration in NYC’s forested natural areas offsets approximately 4,500 cars on the road annually.
  • NYC’s natural areas are dominated by native forests, which act as carbon sinks.
  • The healthiest forests in NYC store and sequester significantly more carbon than degraded forests, which are dominated by vines and invasive plants.

Our results show that urban forested natural areas play an important role in localized, nature-based climate solutions and should be at the center of urban greening policies looking to mitigate climate change.

Forest Identification and Restoration Selection Tool (FIRST)

Through improved practices and better resources, the NAC and NYC Parks together are actively planning for a hotter and drier city in their restoration and conservation efforts in New York City’s forests.

In 2019, the NAC developed and released a new resource for New York City’s land managers called FIRST: Forest Identification and Restoration Selection Tool. The web-based tool was created using data from the NAC and NYC Parks' Ecological Assessment of New York City’s natural areas, and tree species climate adaptation data from the USDA Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas.

Developed with urban forest restoration practitioners in mind, this tool assists users in identifying the kind of forest they are working in based on observed tree species and geographic conditions. The tool then suggests tree species that would be appropriate to plant in that type of forest from one of the 36 palettes.

Click here to access FIRST >

Climate-Resilient Planting Palettes for New York City’s Forests

To accompany the Forest Management Framework for New York City, the Natural Areas Conservancy has developed recommendations for climate-resilient tree species to plant in New York City forest restoration projects.

Using data from the NAC's Ecological Assessment, as well as the US Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas, we have developed planting lists for New York City’s 36 unique forest types. Each list has native tree and shrub species that are ecologically appropriate for the forest type and also resilient to future climate conditions. NYC Parks has adopted our recommendations for their forest restoration planting projects, and we are making them available for other restoration practitioners here.

About the Planting Palettes:

These palettes are chosen by utilizing a series of choices (called a dichotomous key) developed by the New York Natural Heritage Program for identifying natural area communities in New York City. The key can be referenced or printed on our website here.

All of the species included in each palette are appropriate to plant. The plants in the upper tiers, however, are predicted to be more resilient to future climate conditions. The tiers are organized as follows:

TIER 1: Disturbance score better than median, projected to increase in range
TIER 2: Disturbance score less than median, projected to increase in range
TIER 3: Disturbance score better than median, no range shift data
TIER 4: Disturbance score better than median, projected to lose range in NYS
TIER 5: Disturbance score less than median, projected to lose range in NYS
TIER 6: Disturbance score less than median, no range shift data
TIER 7: Unscored Shrub appropriate for community type

In these tiers, "disturbance score" references data from the Climate Change Tree Atlas concerning individual species response to environmental disturbances caused by climate change, like drought or disease. Range loss or gain is based on range shift models also in the Tree Atlas. More information on the models used in the Tree Atlas can be found here.

This project was funded by a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund.