Scientists and Managers Taking Action to Reduce Losses to Biodiversity via Climate Change Refugia


     Modern climate change is real and poses a serious risk to Earth’s biodiversity. At a global scale political intelligence regarding the consequences of doing nothing is growing, as is the will to implement necessary changes to stem our proliferate emissions of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, even the rosiest of predictions have the planet warming and its climate becoming increasingly erratic for decades to come. As ecologists and natural resource managers, we can document the erosion of our biodiversity, and can model how those changes will increase with each warming increment. However, we can also work together to identify ways to reduce those impacts. One of the primary tools of a climate adaptation toolbox is the identification, conservation, and management of climate change refugia.

     Climate refugia is a concept that has existed for more than 100 years, originating in the paleontological literature to understand what fostered the survival of disjunct populations despite severe and rapid past climate change events. Starting nearly 20 years ago, the concept began to be applied to modern, anthropogenic climate change to understand how climate change might show fine-scale geographic variation in its impacts. More recently, conservation practitioners and natural resource managers took hold of the concept and started to ask whether it could be an important aspect of climate change adaptation. Securing protection of such sites, and once protected, managing them to reduce the threats of altered ecological processes (i.e., fire regimes and watershed functions), fragmentation, and invasive species offer clear, spatially discrete actions that could stem an otherwise inevitable loss of biodiversity. Frameworks have recently been laid out for how the idea of climate change refugia could be incorporated into climate change adaptation (Keppel et al. 2015 Frontiers, Morelli et al. 2016).

     Now that the basic idea has been delineated and the management framework has been laid out, it is the right time to synthesize where the sub-field of climate change refugia—areas buffered from contemporary climate change that enable persistence of physical, ecological, and socio-cultural resources—is at present and where it is headed in the 21st century. Recent advances are making refugia identification more realistic and relevant by considering many other components of global change biology including hydrologic change, disturbance (fire, drought, pests/pathogens), population demographics and genetics, interspecies interactions, dispersal and migration, and adaptive responses to changing environmental conditions. We propose a special issue that will present a comprehensive overview of these “version 2.0” approaches to refugia research, conservation, and management.

     Contributed papers will focus on novel research tools and case studies, including new methods for modeling habitat suitability and vulnerability to climate change, use of remote sensing data to map areas resistant to disturbance, and greater integration of biophysical and ecological data. In addition, we will discuss challenges and opportunities for applying this novel refugia science to the management and conservation of key species and ecosystems throughout the US and internationally. Finally, we will evaluate the various conceptual frameworks for climate change refugia that have been produced in the last decade by leveraging the experience of our author team in trying to implement these frameworks in different research and management settings.

     As you can see from the figure below illustrating the trend of “climate” and “refugia” usage from Web of Science, there is a growing interest in this topic. By presenting a diverse suite of emerging techniques and practical case studies, this special issue will foster an advanced conversation about the role of climate change refugia in adapting our management of ecosystems as a response to changing environmental conditions.


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