Understanding our Vulnerabilities—And Our Choices—in the Sierra

Simone Cordery-Cotter

Simone Cordery-Cotter

Climate Analyst

Sierra CAMP, a program of Sierra Business Council, is currently undertaking a regional vulnerability assessment to examine how Sierra Nevada communities will be affected by projected climate changes. We have already seen the massive impact that climate change can have in its multiple forms on our communities in the mountains. Climate change leaves our homes and businesses vulnerable to wildfire and floods, it impacts the clarity of our lakes and rivers, and challenges our recreation patterns as we navigate the changes in snow and temperature year round. The goal of the vulnerability assessment is to better understand and measure the impacts of climate change on our social and economic systems that are inextricably linked to our natural environment.

This project was born out of a desire to better understand exactly what our communities are facing, and how our social and economic systems might be able to adapt to these disruptions. We’re building on the work of state agencies and planners that have worked in this region for decades and witnessed the climate projections come to life in the form of droughts and atmospheric river events. Some communities have the resources to undertake their own vulnerability assessments, while others need assistance building their technical capacities to better understand the data and plan accordingly. 

Knowing this, Sierra Business Council is working with a group of experts and stakeholders to better determine how mountain communities measure their own vulnerability. In urban areas, this typically looks like exposure to pollution sources like industrial manufacturing and traffic density issues and lack of tree canopy. In mountainous areas, vulnerability looks very different. Vulnerability can be determined by the number of roads going in and out of your neighborhood, the proximity of a hospital, and whether or not your home has reliable internet and cell service. 

These are unique characteristics that make our communities wonderful and exquisite, but also pose an interesting challenge for planners, local governments, and residents in the face of both long term changes and acute events that require a disaster response. These climate change challenges also interact in complex ways with issues like housing affordability, transportation access, and recreation. The quilted, overlapping pattern of climate change projections is sobering when you examine where snow levels will be in the Tahoe Basin and beyond fifty years from now, and projections tell us that wildfires are going to increase in size and severity before they get better. 

But the good news is that our vulnerability assessment research shows that we’re in better shape than we thought. The data paints a picture of mountain communities that live in relative harmony with their natural resources and carefully steward their landscapes. Whether those stewardship efforts impact a whole forest or a small patch of open space adjacent to a neighborhood community, our region has the tools and knowledge to make meaningful changes for a better, more resilient future. And even better, our communities are willing to act on that knowledge. 

Municipalities are planning and building microgrids downtown, school districts are driving school buses around to serve as wifi hotspots, and land managers are paying careful attention to the health and habits of the Sierra flora and fauna. Business owners, who have already demonstrated amazing creativity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, are finding ways to expand their seasonal offerings and keep their staff employed year round. 

Initially, I felt apprehensive about what the vulnerability assessment project was going to tell us. I worried that we would find data telling us our communities would be veritable ghost towns if the skiing opportunities melted away and our air became so thick with wildfire smoke that you couldn’t see the trail or the lake ahead. But I’m far more hopeful after looking at our data and after seeing our region’s demonstration of resilience. Many have called coronavirus our resilience dress rehearsal, and if that’s the case, I’m no longer afraid of opening night – our communities will inevitably rise splendidly to the challenge. 

If you are interested in learning more about Sierra Business Council’s vulnerability assessment and available technical assistance, please reach out to sierracamp@sierrabusiness.org.

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