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Protected Areas Serving as Climate Change Refuges for Biodiversity

As per the latest Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, climate change is becoming a major risk to biodiversity.

Protected Areas Serving as Climate Change Refugia for Biodiversity

Shennongjia National Nature Reserve protects the largest primary forests remaining in Central China and provides habitat for many rare animal species, including the golden snub-nosed monkey. Image Credit: JIANG Yong

Plant and animal species tend to experience greater threats of thermal stress as climate change drives temperatures over their thermal tolerance.

A new study has illustrated that the terrestrial protected regions offer habitat and provide a thermal buffer against climate change, thus acting as climate change refugia for biodiversity.

The study was reported in the journal Science Advances on November 2nd, 2022.

This study was headed by researchers from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in partnership with collaborators from China’s Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, the UN Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre Europe (UNEP-WCMC Europe), and the Forest & Nature Lab at Ghent University in Belgium.

The study discovered that compared to nonprotected regions that are frequently disturbed or converted to other land uses, protected areas of natural and seminatural vegetation could cool the land surface temperature efficiently.

In particular, they cool the local maximum temperature in the tropics and decrease seasonal and diurnal temperature ranges in temperate and boreal regions.

Vegetation in protected areas consists of a greater amount of canopy foliage compared to nonprotected areas, even of the same vegetation type. This adjusts local temperatures via biophysical and physiological processes.

The cooling effect of protected areas on daily and seasonal maximum temperatures is particularly important because it can protect species in the wild from episodes of extreme heat. Under a warming climate, as heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, protected areas create thermal refugia.

Gensuo Jia, Study Corresponding Author, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dr. Pieter De Frenne, one of the study's authors, has been working on the microclimatic buffering of macroclimate warming in forests.

Biodiversity responses to climate change are largely determined by microclimate, that is, the local set of atmospheric conditions next to the ground, which is modified by habitats and landscape features at the local scale.

Protected areas provide shaded habitats that can moderate biotic responses to macroclimate warming.

Gensuo Jia, Study Corresponding Author, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Nature conservation is increasingly recognized as a nature-based solution contributing to global climate targets by avoiding carbon emissions from land-use change and improving carbon removal from the air.

This study shows that nature protection’s effectiveness in stabilizing local climates cannot be ignored. Safeguarded forests efficiently decelerate the rate of warming, with a warming rate in protected boreal forests up to 20% lower than in the surrounding areas.

The slowed rate of warming is particularly important for species in the boreal regions because the northern high latitudes have warmed faster than the rest of the world. Protected areas provide a home for threatened species, and the home is air-conditioned naturally!.

Xiyan Xu, Study Lead Author, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Protected areas have long played a key role in the conservation of nature. However, climate change can affect the ability of protected areas to achieve their conservation objectives. The demonstration that protected areas can significantly contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation highlights the need to tackle the biodiversity and climate crises simultaneously” stated Dr. Elise Belle, who has worked for UNEP-WCMC for nearly 10 years and is a co-author of this study.

Journal Reference

Xu, X., et al. (2022) Protected areas provide a thermal buffer against climate change. Science Advances.


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