UMass researchers looking for places safe from climate change

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus

Published: 8/15/2016 11:59:22 AM

A study based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is helping researchers identify stable environments that can shield species from climate change.

Places that are naturally insulated from climate change are called refugia. The team at UMass Amherst — researchers from the Northeast Climate Science Center, led by Toni Lyn Morrelli, a research ecologist with the US. Geological Survey — built the first-ever framework to help pinpoint refugia, according to a university press release.

The concept of refugia is anchored in paleontology and refers to places where plants and animals were protected from glacial destruction. The goal of the study is to give researchers the tools to identify these places and use them to the benefit of various species, Morrell said in the release.

“Natural resource managers are trying to help species adapt to climate change, looking for places where they can make a difference within the constraints of funding and staff time,” Morrelli said. “They can’t act on everything, everywhere, so our idea was to highlight areas that are more resistant to climate change that could help populations remain in place despite warming and changing precipitation.”

While it is difficult to mitigate all the damage of climate changes, areas with certain elements can help species survive more easily.

For example, freshwater refugia can support cold water-dependent species like salmon, according to the release. Some bodies of water are warming to dangerous levels for these species, but certain places have naturally colder groundwater from aquifers that can support streamflows which are ideal for salmon.

Due to the intensity of global warming, today’s refugia probably cannot function as a long-term solution, the team wrote in its recent article in science journal PLOS ONE. Still, identifying refugia, along with other strategies, can help mitigate some of the damage.

“Over 80 percent of U.S. national parks are already at the extreme warm end of their historical temperature distributions, indicating that ongoing and future changes in the same direction will transcend temperatures that they experienced over the last century,” Morelli and her colleagues wrote. “Ultimately, a mix of strategies, including distributing management actions across areas with a range of climate vulnerabilities, might be the most effective path.”

This work was supported by the California Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the U.S. Department of Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center.

It is one of eight providing scientific information to aiding natural resource managers in their responses to climate change.

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