Major Proportion of Tropical Reserves may be at Risk of Climate Change Impacts

Brazil has the largest stretch of tropical ecosystems within protected areas. However, according to a study backed by FAPESP and published in the journal Conservation Biology, a substantial proportion of these reserves may be unprotected against the effects of continuing global climate change.

Researchers classify 258 protected areas in Brazil as “moderately vulnerable” and 17 as “highly vulnerable.” Areas at greatest risk are in the Amazon, Atlantic Rainforest, and Cerrado biomes (Photo credit: Brazilian Environment Ministry)

The principal investigator of the study was David Montenegro Lapola, a scientist at the University of Campinas’s Center for Meteorological and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture (CEPAGRI-UNICAMP) in São Paulo State. The study began during the scientific initiation of Fernanda Sueko Ogawa with a FAPESP scholarship.

The research examined the susceptibility to climate change of 993 protected areas across Brazil, encompassing all areas of over 50 km2, including national parks, sustainable development reserves, ecological stations, and indigenous territories demarcated by the National Foundation for Native Peoples (FUNAI).

The scientists predicted the resilience of these protected areas and compared the outcomes with climate change forecasts based on indicators given by government agencies and earlier studies. Of the 993 areas studied, 258 were categorized as having “medium vulnerability,” and 17 were discovered to be “highly vulnerable” to climate change.


The climate change estimates used for the research were based predominantly on the regional climate change index (RCCI) prepared in 2012 by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), a federal government agency.

The probable impact of climate change and local adaptation capacity (resilience) were evaluated on the basis of data on native vegetation integrity in and around protected regions as well as size and level of isolation.

Estimates of climate-related environmental risks produced by earlier studies were also taken into consideration.

For example, extreme climate change could transform vegetation in the Amazon into Cerrado [Brazilian savanna], while the Pampa [grasslands in the south of Brazil and in parts of Argentina and Uruguay] could become forest.

David Montenegro Lapola, Principal Investigator and Researcher, CEPAGRI-UNICAMP, University of Campinas

The climate change forecasts and risk assessments were integrated with resilience indicators to deduce the vulnerability classifications. “The classifications are the novelty of this study, enabling us to suggest the strategy best suited to each area,” stated Lapola.

The 17 areas categorized as showing high vulnerability to climate change together with low resilience total 20,611 km2, situated in the following biomes: Atlantic Rainforest (7), Cerrado (6), and Amazon (4). The 258 areas with medium vulnerability were said to be moderate with respect to both risk and resilience. Areas of native vegetation totaling over 750,000 km2 may be at danger in the future.


Protected areas are vital to alleviate the effects of climate change. “They represent a large carbon store and maintain ecosystems by preserving pollinators, water resources, and services associated with our basic needs and food security,” stated biologist Carlos Joly, a member of the steering committee for the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP) and the study’s co-author.

On the contrary, the anticipated differences in temperature and rainfall in the years ahead may impact these areas, as shown by the Brazilian research, the first to generate an analysis centering on conservation units.

Research has shown that these changes can affect the distribution of tree species and the survival of certain animal species,” Joly noted.

Besides their crucial significance to biodiversity, many of these areas are populated by traditional populations—indigenous tribes, river dwellers (ribeirinhos), coastal fishing communities (caiçaras), and peasant farmers. Over 80% of the areas categorized by the study as extremely or moderately at risk are indigenous reservations.

This point merits special attention, given the lack of discussion about how these populations can or should manage and adapt to climate change so that they and their way of life can continue to exist.

David Montenegro Lapola, Principal Investigator and Researcher, CEPAGRI-UNICAMP, University of Campinas

Adaptation Strategies

The research suggests four adaptation strategies based on earlier research. Each class of vulnerability would have an equivalent adaptation strategy. Little or no mediation would be required for resilient areas at low risk of climate change, but their ecosystems should be preserved to act as biodiversity repositories for the renewal of other areas.

In regions of medium vulnerability, the focus should be on observation and preservation. In the most susceptible areas, the study proposes the execution of stronger intervention processes, including restoration of degraded vegetation, species translocation, enhanced connections between areas, and even management of traditional populations in cases of comparatively extreme risk to biodiversity.

For both Lapola and Joly, enhancing connections between protected areas is vital to the preservation of all biomes.

Ideally, there should be corridors between protected areas to connect one nucleus to another. This would enhance protection and expand species habitats. For example, a toad adapted to temperatures between 20 °C and 25 °C can travel fast and will want to move if it feels the temperature rising but won’t have a nearby forest environment to move to if the protected area that contains its habitat is small and unconnected to others.

David Montenegro Lapola, Principal Investigator and Researcher, CEPAGRI-UNICAMP, University of Campinas

The research defines a lack of connectivity with regards to an area’s isolation, examining native vegetation within a 10-km radius. Deforestation is one of the factors that result in an absence of connectivity between areas of native vegetation. “So much so that the most vulnerable areas in the Amazon are the areas that are already suffering from deforestation,” stated Lapola.

The following steps in the team’s research on the effects of climate change on Brazil’s protected areas will involve a more detailed analysis of the regional contexts that impact vulnerability and the planning of conservation management methods.

However, the researchers emphasize the need for action to solve several of the predominantly urgent issues that presently threaten protected areas, such as deforestation, fire, land tenure disputes, illegal occupation, maintenance and administrative personnel shortages, and a dearth of funds for oversight and management.

Much remains to be studied, but the article calls attention to the need to include climate change in government planning for protected areas,” stated Joly. “Above all, it’s important to raise awareness of the significance of protected areas in an uncertain future climate.”


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