The cost of waiting to incorporate climate change into conservation strategies is too large to ignore, according to a new paper by international scientists. It will cost us more land and more money if we hesitate to act until further temperature shifts force the issue.
More Protected Areas Needed for Species on the Move
Due to global temperature changes, conservationists will need to create more protected areas worldwide to safeguard plants and animals, researchers found. As climate change alters our landscapes and oceans, it will force many species out of existing protected areas in search of new habitats that better suit their needs.
The study, published March 30 in the scientific journal Frontiers in Environment and Ecology, underscores the notion that in addition to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, we must also anticipate ways to allow people, plants, and animals to adapt to global warming.
It is the first research to examine the relevancy of protected areas – a mainstay of conservation efforts – in adapting to climate change.
"Extinctions due to climate change are not inevitable," says Lee Hannah, a Conservation International (CI) climate scientist and the study’s lead author. "This research shows that new protected areas can greatly reduce the extinction risks for species due to climate change."
Making the Leap From One Protected Area to Another
Species like the golden toad of Costa Rica’s Monte Verde cloud forest are already facing climate-related extinctions and tend to move uphill and toward the poles when met with the effects of global warming.
Imagine what could happen when they do. A toad may move beyond its protected realm in search of a cooler landscape, only to encounter extensive development beyond that region. The odds of this happening are increasing every day as people expand cities, develop coastlines, and cut down forests.
Scientists from CI, the American Museum of Natural History, and academic institutions in the United States, South Africa, and Mexico found it will be crucial to ensure that species like the golden toad make the leap into a second protected area once they move beyond the bounds of a first.
Protected Areas Science Still Relevant
For decades, conservationists have built their work on establishing protected areas to maximize protection of Earth's biodiversity, targeting areas where there are high numbers of threatened species. Hannah and his colleagues set out to determine whether the creation of protected areas would remain a relevant approach to conservation as the climate changes. They were concerned that geographically fixed protected areas, increasingly isolated by habitat destruction, may not bode well.
The scientists focused on three regions – Mexico, South Africa's Cape Floristic Region, and Western Europe. They examined both the present and projected range of species movements, considering greenhouse gas emissions scenarios as well as species’ future needs.
Their findings: "Creation of new protected areas can substantially improve the likelihood of species conservation as climate changes. Investment in new protected areas to cope with climate change is likely to be required in most or in all parts of the world."
Some 22% of Species May Be Unprotected As Climate Changes
In considering circumstances for 1,695 species within those three regions – including mammals, birds, and butterflies in Mexico, and plants in the Cape Floristic Province and Europe – scientists found that existing protected areas will cover the ranges of many species as climate changes, but additional area is required to cover all of them. In each region, the team revealed the need to safeguard currently unprotected areas, to varying degrees, to account for the 6 percent to 22 percent of species that would be unprotected as climate changes.
Doing so will inevitably require more money for conservation. But doing so proactively will be more effective and less costly than waiting for further temperature shifts to force species relocations.
The study’s authors warn that we must also take action to slow climate change: "Protected area additions will eventually be overwhelmed unless they are coupled with limitation of atmospheric greenhouse gases."