Figure 4: Disappearing and novel habitats in climate change scenario - Wiens et al., 2011

A recent publication by Wiens et al. from Biological Conservation asks (and answers) the important question of “what happens to protected areas in 2070 when climate shifts”.   Climate change affects current protected areas, but where will that impact be so extreme wherein current “climate spaces” disappear and “novel” or new habitat areas will arise.  Will impacted areas will fall within the current matrix of protected lands.  The answer is yes, and how.

The paper reports that current protected areas will disproportionately be home to disappearing habitats: Instead, the projected occurrence of disappearing climates in Fully Protected areas is disproportionately great – roughly 2.5 times greater than expected (Table 2).

We wholeheartedly disagree when the authors discredit the role of management: Because the forces that determine shifts in the climate space are beyond the reach of management, however, nothing can be done to forestall the disappearance of some climate conditions and the consequences of those changes. We know that there are many stories where local site-specific changes can maintain important microclimates for rare species.  One simple management action is managing groves (stands) of trees for Monarch overwintering sites.  We can make sites more or less amenable to Monarchs providing more shade, less shade, more protection from wind, etc.  Additionally, weeds also play an important role in local climate.  Removal of weeds from areas can increase water availability to native plants and alter the soil moisture and humidity in an area. (See Restoration Ecology Online publication from June, 28 2011, Non-Native Grass Removal and Shade Increase Soil Moisture and Seedling Performance during Hawaiian Dry Forest Restoration, Jarrod M. Thaxton et al.)

We believe this above study provides extraordinarily useful information for determining areas where long term research and stewardship studies could take place.  Could management action in these disappearing habitats keep them from disappearing even if a large scale climate model argues they will? What site specific changes could help maintain biodiversity?  What indicators can we observe in these areas to help us see long term change in other protected areas? Will these sites serve as effective “canaries in the coal mine?”

Written by GoldenHour

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