Conserving Biodiverse ‘Slow Lanes’ in a Rapidly Changing World

By University of Massachusetts Amherst

Arctic ground squirrels are highly vulnerable to climate change but might persist in climate-change refugia in Denali National Park, Alaska.

The notion of conserving climate change refugia – areas relatively buffered from current climate change that shelter valued wildlife, ecosystems, and other natural resources – is only about 10 years old, but the field has matured enough that a leading journal has prepared a special issue on the topic.

It offers “a look back at how far we’ve come and a view forward to the work that is still needed,” says editor Toni Lyn Morelli, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northeast Climate Adaptation Center (NE CASC) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I believe this is the first time there has been a special issue devoted to climate-change refugia” she adds, “so we think it will spur conservation and innovation.”

The 100-page issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment organized by Morelli features a new synthesis of developments in refugia science, plus eight articles by experts in the field and an editorial by paleo-ecologist and director of the Southwest and South Central Climate Adaptation Science Centers, Stephen Jackson.

Jackson says, “As in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, our best hope is to render the climate change wave low and slow, reducing impacts and buying time to study, prepare, understand and adapt.” The introductory article outlines how climate-change refugia can serve as a “slow lane” to protect native species and ecosystems from the negative effects of climate change and as safe havens for biodiversity and ecosystems in the longer term.

The special issue covers a variety of topics, including refugia related to fish and wildlife, rivers and wetlands, mountains and forests – plus conceptual advances and examples of the successful application of refugia maps and data to management questions.

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