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Scientists Pinpoint Areas Most Vulnerable to Climate Change and Habitat Loss

By Elspeth Dehnert, E&E reporter
7/29/2014 12:13:01 PM

A team of scientists has identified regions that should be top conservation priorities due to being susceptible to both man-made climate change and habitat destruction. Their research was published July 28 in the journal Global Change Biology.

The researchers analyzed to what extent regions with very few protected areas and high levels of habitat loss -- due to things like urbanization, agriculture and deforestation -- are vulnerable to a shift in vegetation caused by climate change, known as a "biome shift."

"Climate change, because it's warming the Earth, tends to shift biomes [rainforests, tundras, deserts, etc.] towards the poles or equator," said Patrick Gonzalez, a study author and National Park Service climate change scientist.

"The biome shifts are a very fundamental change in the ecosystem," he added. "It doesn't affect just one or two species; a whole set of species need to change for a biome to shift."

According to Gonzalez, one-third to one-half of the world's vegetated area is susceptible, compared to just one-tenth of the vegetated areas located in potential "refugia," or biologically diverse areas less affected by climate change.

For example, the study found that Europe is the most vulnerable continent due to having the least amount of its land area located in refugia.

"The problem with Europe is that it doesn't have many areas that are intact compared to other areas like the Congo Basin, where there are large intact forested areas," said Jadu Dash, a study author and Southampton scientist.

When USGS mapped the glaciers in Icy Bay, Alaska in the 1950s, the glacier in this image was flat and hundreds of meters thick. Bedrock is emerging as Guyot retreats very rapidly. Taken in Jan 2010. Credit: Shad O'Neel, USGS. Credit: Flickr/US Geological Survey

Adapting to 'future conditions'

In regions like Africa, Australia and South America, where there is expansive and intact wilderness, the authors suggest that conservation of the remaining large-scale refugia should be the priority, whereas in human-dominated areas with less expansive wilderness -- like most of Europe and much of Southeast Asia and North America -- the focus should be on the smaller-scale refugia.

"Organizers in Europe should make sure to protect the limited amount of refugia in Europe," Dash said. "It's difficult to go back and increase the area, but we can conserve what we already have."

While the researchers determined that 10 to 28 percent of the world is located in potential refugia, they found 1 to 2 percent of the world's vegetated area is currently in existing refugia and under the protection of a national park.

The study determined that up to one-quarter of the total area of the U.S. National Park System is at risk of having its vegetation shift northward and upslope, with North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks in Washington state being particularly vulnerable.

"Up until now, the management of national parks has often focused on returning to historical conditions," Gonzalez said, "but climate change is shifting everything around, so that really requires us to adapt our management of natural and cultural resources to potential future conditions."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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